Category Archives: Space Science

Space sciences roundup – May.2.2019

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

** Latest Mars exploration news:

“Navcam Right image showing the newest “Kilmarie” drill hole on the right, <1 m away from the “Aberlady” drill hole on the left.” – NASA JPL
“Landslide in Hydraotes Chaos” – Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

… In perusing the April image release from the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), I came across the image above, cropped and reduced to post here, of the discovery of another landslide within Hydraotes Chaos, one of the largest regions of chaos terrain on Mars. The image above was taken on February 9, 2019, and has since been followed up with a second image to create a stereo pair.

This is not the first landslide found in Hydraotes Chaos. I highlighted a similar slide on March 11. Both today’s landslide as well as the previous one likely represent examples of gravitational collapses as shown in this science paper about Martian ground water. Some scientists have proposed that Hydraotes Chaos was once an inland sea, and as the water drained away the loss of its buoyancy is thought to cause this kind of landslide at the base of cliffs and crater rims.

The past presence of water also helps explain the soft muddy look of this landslide. When this collapse occurred the material was likely saturated with water. Today it is most likely quite dry and hardened, but when it flowed it flowed like wet mud. Its size, almost a mile long and a quarter mile across, speaks to Mars’s low gravity, which would allow for large singular collapses like this.

** Ocean Worlds in the Outer Solar System is the title of a Silicon Valley Astronomy Lecture given recently by Kevin Hand of NASA JPL:

Dr. Kevin Hand of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory asks where the best place is to find life beyond Earth. He concludes it may be that the small, ice-covered moons of Jupiter and Saturn harbor some of the most habitable real estate in our Solar System. Life loves liquid water and these moons have lots of it! Dr. Hand explains the science behind our understanding of these worlds, with a special focus on Jupiter’s intriguing moon Europa, which is a top priority for future NASA missions.

** Mysterious Fast Radio Bursts (FRB) are discussed by Bill Diamond, director of the SETI Institute, and Andrew Siemion, director of the UC Berkeley SETI Research Center:

** Highlights of CRS-17 science payloads that will go to the ISS on the upcoming SpaceX Cargo Dragon mission:


Moon Rush: The New Space Race

Space sciences roundup – April.24.2019

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

** The InSight Mars Lander detects its first Marsquake using the seismometer set on the ground next to the spacecraft:

From NASA:

NASA’s Mars InSight lander has measured and recorded for the first time ever a likely “marsquake.”

The faint seismic signal, detected by the lander’s Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) instrument, was recorded on April 6, the lander’s 128th Martian day, or sol. This is the first recorded trembling that appears to have come from inside the planet, as opposed to being caused by forces above the surface, such as wind. Scientists still are examining the data to determine the exact cause of the signal.

This image, taken March 19, 2019 by a camera on NASA’s Mars InSight lander, shows the rover’s domed Wind and Thermal Shield, which covers its seismometer, the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure, and the Martian surface in the background. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The seismometer signals can be converted to audio:

This video and audio illustrates a seismic event detected by NASA’s Mars InSight rover on April 6, 2019, the 128th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. Three distinct kinds of sounds can be heard, all of them detected as ground vibrations by the spacecraft’s seismometer, called the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS): noise from Martian wind, the seismic event itself, and the spacecraft’s robotic arm as it moves to take pictures. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/CNES/IPGP/Imperial College London.

The new seismic event was too small to provide solid data on the Martian interior, which is one of InSight’s main objectives. The Martian surface is extremely quiet, allowing SEIS, InSight’s specially designed seismometer, to pick up faint rumbles. In contrast, Earth’s surface is quivering constantly from seismic noise created by oceans and weather. An event of this size in Southern California would be lost among dozens of tiny crackles that occur every day.

“The Martian Sol 128 event is exciting because its size and longer duration fit the profile of moonquakes detected on the lunar surface during the Apollo missions,” said Lori Glaze, Planetary Science Division director at NASA Headquarters.

Note that the signals’ frequencies “have been sped up by a factor of 60” since otherwise the vibrations would not be audible to the human ear.

** More quakes in the Cosmos are being detected more quickly with newly upgraded gravity wave observatories in the US and Italy. The sensitivities of the detectors have been increased to a level such that signals picked up at the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) installations in Louisiana, and Washington plus the European Virgo detector in Italy will result in roughly one gravity wave detection per week. A new public alert system will let everyone know when a detection occurs:

From PSU:

Two new probable gravitational waves — ripples in the fabric of spacetime caused by cataclysmic cosmic events and first predicted by Albert Einstein over 100 years ago — have been detected by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and the Virgo observatory in Italy in the first weeks after the detectors were updated. The source of both waves is believed to be the merging of a pair of black holes.

LIGO announced the discovery of the first new gravitational wave in its first-ever open public alert on April 8, and quickly followed up with a second announcement on April 12. LIGO detected the first-ever gravitational wave in September 2015, and announced the discovery in February 2016. Ten more gravitational waves were detected over the following three years, but with updates to LIGO and Virgo, scientists expect to see as many as one per week, which so far has proven true.

Updates to LIGO and Virgo have combined to increase its sensitivity by about 40 percent over its last run. Additionally, with this third observing run, LIGO and Virgo transitioned to a system whereby they alert the astronomy community almost immediately of a potential gravitational wave detection. This allows electromagnetic telescopes (X-ray, UV, optical, radio) to search for and hopefully find an electromagnetic signal from the same source, which can be key to understanding the dynamics of the event.

“The region of sky believed to contain the source of the gravitational wave detected on April 8, 2019. The area spans 387 square degrees, equivalent to nearly 2000 full-Moons, roughly meandering through the constellations Cassiopeia, Lacerta, Andromeda, and Cepheus in the northern hemisphere. IMAGE: LIGO/Caltech/MIT”

… The source of both gravitational waves is suspected to be compact binary mergers — the collision of two massive and incredibly dense cosmic objects into one another. Compact binary mergers can occur between two neutron stars, two black holes, or a neutron star and a black hole. Each of these different types of mergers create gravitational waves with strikingly different signals, so the LIGO team can identify the type of event that created the gravitational waves.

** Huge gallery of Rosetta mission images of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is now available on line at the OSIRIS Image Archive:

The ESA release says the image shown below

… was taken on 6 October 2014 from a distance of 18.6 km to the comet. This is just one of almost 70 000 images taken with Rosetta’s high-resolution imaging system OSIRIS that are now available via a new online and mobile-friendly ‘comet viewer’ created in a joint project with the Department of Information and Communication at Flensburg University of Applied Sciences, and the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, who lead the OSIRIS team.

A feature of  Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko: “Seen from afar, the comet is usually likened to a duck in shape, but in this enchanting close-up view its profile resembles that of a cat’s face seen side-on. The two ‘ears’ of the cat make up the twin peaks either side of the ‘C. Alexander Gate’ – named for US Rosetta Project Scientist Claudia Alexander who passed away in July 2015. These impressive cliffs lie at the border between the Serqet and Anuket regions on the comet’s head.”

The image viewer hosts the full archive, but also has subsections organising image sets into themes: for example, images showing towering cliffs and bizarre cracks on the comet surface, or those focusing on spectacular dust fountains as the comet launched gas and dust jets into space as its surface ices were warmed as it came closer to the Sun on its orbit.

The collection of OSIRIS images captured the farewell of lander Philae as it dropped towards the surface of the comet, and later, towards the end of the mission, the feverish search for the hidden robot.

Within the new comet viewer, each of the nearly 70 000 images is supplemented with the date on which it was taken, the distance to the comet, and a short accompanying text briefly describing what is seen in the image. The images can be downloaded in full resolution and can also be directly shared to Twitter and Facebook.

** The Southern Crab Nebula shines in a new Hubble image marking 29 years in orbit for the space telescope: Hubble Celebrates its 29th Birthday with Unrivaled View of the Southern Crab Nebula | ESA/Hubble

This incredible image of the hourglass-shaped Southern Crab Nebula was taken to mark the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s 29th anniversary in space. The nebula, created by a binary star system, is one of the many objects that Hubble has demystified throughout its productive life. This new image adds to our understanding of the nebula and demonstrates the telescope’s continued capabilities.

The Southern Crab Nebula — Hubble’s 29th anniversary image.

On 24 April 1990, the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope was launched on the space shuttle Discovery. It has since revolutionised how astronomers and the general public see the Universe. The images it provides are spectacular from both a scientific and a purely aesthetic point of view.

Each year the telescope dedicates a small portion of its precious observing time to take a special anniversary image, focused on capturing particularly beautiful and meaningful objects. This year’s image is the Southern Crab Nebula, and it is no exception [1].

This peculiar nebula, which exhibits nested hourglass-shaped structures, has been created by the interaction between a pair of stars at its centre. The unequal pair consists of a red giant and a white dwarf. The red giant is shedding its outer layers in the last phase of its life before it too lives out its final years as a white dwarf. Some of the red giant’s ejected material is attracted by the gravity of its companion.

More highlights from Hubble’s 29 years in orbit:

** Latest Mars updates from Bob Zimmerman:

Comparison of an area near Olympus Mars before (left) and after (right) the global dust storm of 2018. Credits: Bob Zimmerman & HiRISE camera on NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO)
White streaks atop avalanche debris on this Mars slope appear to be water frost. Credits: Bob Zimmerman + HiRISE camera on NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO)

Check out a new MRO avalanche image released today by NASA: Landslides in Mars’ Cerberus Fossae | NASA.

The Mast Camera, or Mastcam, on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover captured this image after “it drilled a rock nicknamed “Aberlady,” on Saturday, April 6, 2019 (the 2,370th Martian day, or sol, of the mission). The rock and others nearby appear to have moved when the drill was retracted. This was the first time Curiosity has drilled in the long-awaited “clay-bearing unit.” See also a GIF animation showing before and after the drilling. Credits: NASA JPL
  • How fast do things change on Mars? – A comparison of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter images of a dune-like feature on Mars taken 12 years apart show some differences. “Overall, however, not much is different. Though dunes definitely change on Mars, they do so much more slowly than on Earth. And in some cases what look like dunes are not really dunes at all, but a form of cemented sandstone, exhibiting even fewer changes over long time spans.”

** Some space sciences webcasts:

>> Weekly Space Hangout: Apr 17, 2019 – Dr. Dorothy Oehler Talks “Is there Methane on Mars?”

>> SETI Institute: Tiny Neptune Moon Spotted by Hubble May Have Broken from Larger Moon

>> SETI Institute: Mars Exploration Rovers: Spirit and Opportunity with Nathalie Cabrol

>> SETI Institute: Turkish Meteorite Traced to Impact Crater on Asteroid Vesta


Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past

Space sciences roundup – April.10.2019

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

** Radio telescope array images a black hole for the first time. This is the big news not just of the week but for 2019: First Image of a Black Hole | ESO

The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) — a planet-scale array of eight ground-based radio telescopes forged through international collaboration — was designed to capture images of a black hole. In coordinated press conferences across the globe, EHT researchers revealed that they succeeded, unveiling the first direct visual evidence of the supermassive black hole in the centre of Messier 87 and its shadow.

The shadow of a black hole seen here is the closest we can come to an image of the black hole itself, a completely dark object from which light cannot escape. The black hole’s boundary — the event horizon from which the EHT takes its name — is around 2.5 times smaller than the shadow it casts and measures just under 40 billion km across. While this may sound large, this ring is only about 40 microarcseconds across — equivalent to measuring the length of a credit card on the surface of the Moon.

Although the telescopes making up the EHT are not physically connected, they are able to synchronize their recorded data with atomic clocks — hydrogen masers — which precisely time their observations. These observations were collected at a wavelength of 1.3 mm during a 2017 global campaign. Each telescope of the EHT produced enormous amounts of data – roughly 350 terabytes per day – which was stored on high-performance helium-filled hard drives. These data were flown to highly specialised supercomputers — known as correlators — at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy and MIT Haystack Observatory to be combined. They were then painstakingly converted into an image using novel computational tools developed by the collaboration.

Chandra X-ray Observatory close-up of the core of the M87 galaxy. Credits: NASA/CXC/Villanova University/J. Neilsen

More at:

** SpaceIL Beresheet spacecraft will land on the Moon tomorrow April 11th, hopefully softly. The Israeli privately developed vehicle made orbit corrections this past week that brought the vehicle into the final close lunar orbit in preparation for the landing firing: Find updates at Israel To The Moon (@TeamSpaceIL) | Twitter.

Resources for the mission:

There will be a webcast of the landing. The estimated landing times:

  • 22:00 – 23:00 Israel
  • 19:00 – 20:00 UTC
  • 15:00 – 16:00 EDT
  • 12:00 – 13:00 PDT

Some info on the landing site: Beresheet lunar landing site revealed 3 April 2019 – Weizmann Institute of Science.

** Launch of the Indian Chandrayaan 2 lunar lander/rover mission will be delayed somewhat due to some minor damage during a test: Chandrayaan 2: Vikram hurt during practice, puts Chandrayaan-2 on bench – Times of India

Vikram, the Lander on India’s ambitious mission that envisages to land a probe on Moon, has suffered minor injuries in two of its legs during a test late February, putting Chandrayaan-2 on the bench at least until May. But the need to find the most suitable launch window could see the mission take off only in the second half of the year.

A source in the know, said: “The rover and orbiter are in good health and tests met all the parameters. However, after the ‘Lander Drop Test’, we found that Vikram (the lander) needed to be strengthened in its legs. Prima facie, it appears that not all parameters were set correctly before the test, it could also be that the additional mass—a result of the new configuration—caused the problem.”

** Curiosity captures Demos and Phobos eclipses of the Sun: Curiosity Captured Two Solar Eclipses on Mars | NASA

When NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover landed in 2012, it brought along eclipse glasses. The solar filters on its Mast Camera (Mastcam) allow it to stare directly at the Sun. Over the past few weeks, Curiosity has been putting them to good use by sending back some spectacular imagery of solar eclipses caused by Phobos and Deimos, Mars’ two moons.

Phobos, which is as wide as 16 miles (26 kilometers) across, was imaged on March 26, 2019 (the 2,359th sol, or Martian day, of Curiosity’s mission); Deimos, which is as wide as 10 miles (16 kilometers) across, was photographed on March 17, 2019 (Sol 2350). Phobos doesn’t completely cover the Sun, so it would be considered an annular eclipse. Because Deimos is so small compared to the disk of the Sun, scientists would say it’s transiting the Sun.

** More Martian image commentaries from Bob Zimmerman:

  • A dance of dust devils – “Many of my image posts about Mars have emphasized how slowly things change there. This post will highlight the exact opposite. When it comes to dust devils, it appears they can leave their trace frequently and often, and for some reason they seem to also favor specific locations.
  • Monitoring the ice scarps on Mars for changes – “Monitoring these scraps will be crucial for future exploration. The ice here is very readily available, as it is exposed and should be relatively easy to access. Moreover, tracking might tell us whether it will be easier to get at this ice from the top of the cliff by drilling down, or approach it from the bottom. Some of the ice bands in these scarps was very close to the surface at the top of the cliff.
  • A decade of changes at the Martian south pole – “The mystery here is that these images were both taken at almost the same moment in the late southern summer, though about five Martian years apart. Why should the white areas have shrunk? We would expect a reduction from winter to summer, but these were both taken in summer. While it would make sense to see changes, with some areas growing and others shrinking, we should expect to see about the same amount of white area.
Dust devil trails in southern highlands of Mars. Credits: Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter HiRISE camera.

** Martian soil studies may bring medical spinoff benefits: Martian soil detox could lead to new medicines – ESA

“During their experiments they noticed that when bacteria grew in partial gravity, they became stressed as they accumulated waste around them that they couldn’t get rid of. This holds great potential because when microbes belonging to the Streptomyces family become stressed, they usually start making antibiotics,” adds Prof. Claessen.

“Seventy percent of all the antibiotics humans use are derived from Streptomyces bacteria and we know they have the potential to produce even more. Using the RPM to stress them in new ways may help us to find ones we’ve never seen before.”

** Hayabusa2 successfully fired a projectile into Ryuga to investigate the asteorid’s surface structure:

Debris from the impact of the projectile shot from Hayabusa2 can be seen in this cropped section of an image taken by the DCAM3 free-flying imager. Hayabusa2 went to the far side of Ryuga to wait for the debris to settle back to the surface.

Here is the full image:

** Parker Solar Probe makes another close pass of the Sun

From the Parker Solar Probe mission:

Parker Solar Probe has successfully completed its second close approach to the Sun, called perihelion, and is now entering the outbound phase of its second solar orbit. At 6:40 p.m. EDT on April 4, 2019, the spacecraft passed within 15 million miles of our star, tying its distance record as the closest spacecraft ever to the Sun; Parker Solar Probe was traveling at 213,200 miles per hour during this perihelion.

The Parker Solar Probe mission team at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland scheduled a contact with the spacecraft via the Deep Space Network for four hours around the perihelion and monitored the health of the spacecraft throughout this critical part of the encounter. Parker Solar Probe sent back beacon status “A” throughout its second perihelion, indicating that the spacecraft is operating well and all instruments are collecting science data.

“The spacecraft is performing as designed, and it was great to be able to track it during this entire perihelion,” said APL’s Nickalaus Pinkine, Parker Solar Probe mission operations manager. “We’re looking forward to getting the science data down from this encounter in the coming weeks so the science teams can continue to explore the mysteries of the corona and the Sun.”

Parker Solar Probe montage. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben

** Will the Sun remain quiet or not? Bob Zimmerman reports on the latest sunspot activity and on predictions for the next phase of the solar cycle: Sunspot update March 2019: An upcoming Grand Minimum? | Behind The Black

Even though we are now deep into the beginning of what might become the first grand minimum in sunspot activity since the invention of the telescope, that does not mean the Sun has as yet stopped producing sunspots. Yesterday NOAA released its the monthly update of its tracking of the solar cycle, adding sunspot activity for March 2019 to its graph. Below is that graph, annotated by me to give it some context.

It shows the Sun with a slight burst in activity in March, suggesting that though we are now in the solar minimum that minimum still has the ability to produce sunspots.

** Sounding rockets produced a  spectacular sky show after releasing tracer gases. The goal of the NASA project is to help better understand the flow of charged particles in the earths magnetic fields at the poles: Two rockets dropped tracers into the northern lights and the result was glorious | Ars Technica

Late Friday night, two sounding rockets launched from a small spaceport in northern Norway. The two skinny rockets soared to an altitude of 320km, and along the way each released a visible gas intended to disperse through and illuminate conditions inside the aurora borealis. Some of the resulting images were stunning.

This NASA-funded AZURE mission, which stands for Auroral Zone Upwelling Rocket Experiment, is one of a series of sounding rocket missions launching over the next two years as part of an international collaboration known as “The Grand Challenge Initiative – Cusp.” The goal of these flights is to study the region where Earth’s magnetic field lines bend down into the atmosphere, and particles from space mix with those from the planet.

See also Sounding Rocket Mission Will Trace Auroral Winds | NASA.

April 8, 2019: The Auroral Zone Upwelling Rocket Experiment or AZURE mission was successfully conducted April 5 from the Andøya Space Center in Norway. The first Black Brant XI sounding rocket was launched at 6:14 p.m. EDT and flew to an altitude of 200 miles, followed by the launch of the second Black Brant XI at 6:16 p.m. EDT flying to an altitude of 202 miles. The initial assessment from the field showed that the rockets were launched into a good science event and ground based photos/data of the vapor releases were obtained from at least two locations.  Preliminary reports state that the scientist for the mission were very pleased with the results.

** The next Northrop-Grumman Cygnus cargo mission to the ISS will carry an array of experiments: Cygnus Carries Tech and Science Investigations to Space Station | NASA

A Northrop Grumman Cygnus spacecraft scheduled to liftoff on April 17 carries supplies and scientific experiments to the International Space Station. It uses a new late load capability that allows time-sensitive experiments to be loaded just 24 hours before liftoff. Previously, all cargo had to be loaded about four days prior to launch, creating challenges for some types of experiments.

The launch on the company’s Antares rocket departs from Pad-0A of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia. This Cygnus mission is the 11th and final under Northrop’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS)-1 contract with NASA; a CRS-2 contract begins with a cargo launch in the fall. Resupply missions from U.S. companies ensure NASA’s capability to deliver critical science research to the space station and significantly increase its ability to conduct new investigations in the only laboratory in space.

Continue to the article to see a list of the experiments.


Brief Answers to the Big Questions – Stephen Hawking

Space sciences roundup – Apr.3.2019

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

** SpaceIL’s Beresheet prepares to enter lunar orbit on Thursday, April 4th. The vehicle fired its engine on Monday for 72 seconds to lengthen its long elliptical earth orbit. This will bring the spacecraft close enough to the Moon so that a brief firing of the engine there will put it into lunar orbit. On April 11, a final firing of the engine will send the vehicle down for a landing on the surface.

Photo of earth taken by Beresheet on March 1st from about 16,000 kilometers as the spacecraft made its last past by earth. The photo shows the Arab Peninsula and Southeast Africa.

If successful, this will be the first non-governmental spacecraft to go into orbit around another celestial object. And the first such to attempt a landing.

If the landing on Mare Serenitatis, in the northern hemisphere of the Moon, is successful, the craft will operate for about 2 days. The area is known for magnetic anomalies and the magnetometer device on the craft will measure the field strength during its descent and at the landing site.

The spacecraft also holds an array of mirrors provided by NASA for ground tracking and Deep Space Network support to aid in mission communication: NASA, Israel Space Agency Sign Agreement for Commercial Lunar Cooperation – NASA

See also:

** Japan’s Hayabusa2 soon to shoot a projectile into the Ryugu asteroid to learn about the characteristics of the surface material.

From Jason Davis:

The spacecraft is about to deploy an explosives-filled box that will detonate in space, fire a copper plate into Ryugu, and create a crater up to 10 meters wide. The moment of crater generation is set for 5 April at 02:36 UTC. …

… There’s a lot of uncertainty involved with SCI [Small Carry-on Impactor], which makes it a really interesting experiment. Scientists aren’t quite sure how big the crater will be. They can only aim SCI to a certain degree; the target spot has a margin of error of 200 meters. The width of the crater will depend on the type of material the impactor hits. Most models estimate a crater up to 10 meters wide, but there are a few surface types that could result in either a very small crater (if the impactor hits a particularly porous spot) or a crater even larger than 10 meters (if it hits a bunch of tiny, coarse pebbles). The crater depth is expected to be about a tenth of its diameter, which is actually a rule of thumb for simple, bowl-shaped craters anywhere in the solar system!

The target area is near Ryugu’s equator, about a quarter of the way around the asteroid east of the first sample collection site. That’s roughly 300 meters from MASCOT’s final resting place, so it’s not impossible that SCI could hit quite close to the now-dead lander. Since the Hayabusa2 team might also collect a sample from this artificial crater, they chose a spot geologically similar to the first touchdown site, allowing for an above-and-beneath-the-surface comparison. The location is also relatively free of hazards, which should help for a future touchdown.

Artist’s conception of the SCI experiment. The left panel shows the release of the SCI from the Hayabusa2 spacecraft. The right panel shows the DCAM3 camera  (silver cylinder) observing the explosion while Hayabusa2 is hides behind asteroid Ryugu to avoid the resulting debris.

** China’s station on the far side of the Moon re-awakens after surviving another 2 week long lunar night.

The rover was designed to last for three lunar days, but much like NASA missions that regularly outlive their initial mandates, Yutu 2’s mission may stretch on longer, the Chinese space agency hopes. (The current rover’s predecessor, Yutu, lost its roving ability on its second day on the moon.)

The China Lunar Exploration Program, which heads up the mission, has not provided any details about its scientific plans for the fourth day of Chang’e 4, which is focused on exploring the far side of the moon and how it differs from the near side. 

** Launch of India’s Chandrayaan-2 lunar lander delayed till May – Chandrayaan-2 mission deferred again, scheduled for May launch | India News – Times of India

Unlike the Chandrayaan-1 programme in 2008 that involved only orbiting around the moon, Chandrayaan-2 is a much complicated mission. It involves a soft-landing on the lunar surface and a rover that will move on the moon’s surface for 100 metre and analyse the soil content. Isro is, therefore, not taking any risk and taking time to fix all possible glitches as it wants a perfect landing.

Another reason for the postponement is that space agency wants to make use of the full lunar day (equal to 14 earth days). In January, the Isro chairman told TOI, “We want to land the rover at a time when it can use the full lunar day and do all scientific experiments. For that to happen, there is a launch window. If we miss the window, we have to defer the launch.

** SpaceFab commercial space telescope project awards observing time on the company’s soon-to-be-launched Waypoint space telescope to Dr. David Rubin of Univ. of Hawaii: SpaceFab.US Awards Space Telescope Time for Research – SpaceFab.US

Dr. Rubin’s program will use the Waypoint satellite’s EMCCD (Electron Multiplying Charge Coupled Device) camera to make rapid UV (ultraviolet) observations of newly discovered type Ia supernovae. Almost all UV light is absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere, so only a telescope in the vacuum of space can make these types of measurements. The Waypoint satellite can be rapidly tasked to take priority observations within 90 minutes.

Dr. Rubin is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Space Telescope Science Institute, but has accepted a faculty position at the University of Hawaii starting in August 2019.  His primary focus is on supernova cosmology, and is currently co-running a program to dramatically increase the number of distant SNe Ia to get substantially improved cosmological constraints.

The company will make money by leasing observation time on the orbital instrument to scientific and commercial users. The Waypoint Space Telescope is

a 21 centimeter mirror, launching as a co-payload on a SpaceX launch vehicle  in 2020. This commercial telescope will have an image intensified ultraviolet /visible 8 megapixel camera, and a 48MP main camera for visible and near-infrared imaging for astronomical and Earth observation purposes, available for use by customers around the world.  

The Waypoint telescope will also provide 150 band hyper-spectral camera for Earth observation at 3  meter resolution for use in scientific and commercial applications.  These applications include efficient farming, mineral and geological surveys, environmental studies,  climate change, disaster relief, oil spills, animal migrations, monitor urban growth and more.

SpaceFab’s Waypoint telescope design provides twice the resolution of other satellite telescopes of equivalent size and weight by using extending optics. The telescope is launched with a standard 12U cubesat form factor, then the secondary optics assembly is extended when in orbit. This doubles the telescope focal length while cutting the size, weight, and launch cost in half compared to conventional satellite telescopes with similar resolution.

Waypoint space telescope design rendering.

An interview from 2017 with Sean League, SpaceFab co-founder and Spacecraft Engineering Director:

** Dunes, Walnut Shells, Alien Impostors and Other Worlds: A Visit with Sarah Hörst | The Planetary Society

A very special, extended conversation with Johns Hopkins University planetary scientist Sarah Hörst is capped by a tour of her fascinating lab. That’s where Sarah and her team simulate decidedly un-Earthlike atmospheres and more. Emily Lakdawalla has returned from this year’s Lunar and Planetary Science Conference with news from around the solar system. Caffeine! It’s on Saturn’s moon Titan AND in the espresso made on the International Space Station! More about the latter in What’s Up.

** Exploring Ultima Thule: humanity’s next frontier – A SETI Institute panel discusses

… the key results of this successful flyby and the future of the mission, we invited Alan Stern, planetary scientist at Southwest Research Institute and the Principal Investigator of NASA’s New Horizons mission who will join us remotely via video-conferencing. Two Senior Research Scientists from our own SETI Institute who are part of the mission will participate in this discussion as well. Mark Showalter is a Fellow of the Institute who led the New Horizons risk assessment team before the flyby, and Ross Beyer, also a member of the New Horizons Geology and Geophysics team, who is helping to understand the 3D shape of MU69.

** A helicopter is ready to go to Mars in 2020 following successful tests in Martian level atmospheric pressure: NASA has been testing the helicopter that will head to Mars next year – MIT Technology Review

** A brief burst of Methane seen by Curiosity rover was also detected by the Mars Express spacecraft as it flew over the same area:  Mars Express matches methane spike measured by Curiosity – ESA

While spacecraft and telescopic observations from Earth have in general reported no or very low detections of methane, or measurements right at the limit of the instruments’ capabilities, a handful of spurious spikes, along with Curiosity’s reported seasonal variation at its location in Gale Crater, raise the exciting question of how it is being generated and destroyed in present times.

Now, for the first time, a strong signal measured by the Curiosity rover on 15 June 2013 is backed up by an independent observation by the Planetary Fourier Spectrometer (PFS) onboard Mars Express the next day, as the spacecraft flew over Gale Crater.

Methane is of particular interest because it is a short lived gas that could be a signature of a biological process. However, there are also geologic processes that could produce it and there are no methods yet for distinguishing the two possible origins of the gas: There Is Definitely Methane on Mars, Scientists Say. But Is It a Sign of Life? –

** Mars underground water ice on the move:

From Leonard David:

New research suggests deep groundwater on Mars could still be active and creating surface streams in some near-equatorial areas on the planet.

Once again, scientists point to the planet’s recurring slope lineae – RSL for short – that are akin to dried, short streams of water that appear on some crater walls.

Leonard David: “NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE image of recurring slope lineae in Melas Chasma, Valles Marineris. Arrows point out tops and bottoms of a few lineae.” Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

** Recent analyses of Mars images by Bob Zimmerman:

** Undergrad detects 2 exoplanets in Kepler space telescope data using a deep-learning neural network program:

** The Weekly Space Hangout includes interviews and discussions of topics in the space sciences. Here is a sampling of recent shows:


Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto

Space sciences roundup – Mar.20.2019

A sampling of recent articles, videos, and images about space related science news:

** Ultima Thule grows from a dot to a world in this time lapse of images captured by the New Horizons probe as it approached the Kuiper Belt object: Approach to Ultima Thule – New Horizons

Ultima Thule is providing a plethora of clues to the early formation stages of the solar system: A Prehistoric Puzzle in the Kuiper Belt | NASA

This strange shape is the biggest surprise, so far, of the flyby. “We’ve never seen anything like this anywhere in the solar system,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado. “It is sending the planetary science community back to the drawing board to understand how planetesimals – the building blocks of the planets – form.”

Because it is so well preserved, Ultima Thule is offering our clearest look back to the era of planetesimal accretion and the earliest stages of planetary formation. Apparently Ultima Thule’s two lobes once orbited each other, like many so-called binary worlds in the Kuiper Belt, until something brought them together in a “gentle” merger.

“This fits with general ideas of the beginning of our solar system,” said William McKinnon, a New Horizons co-investigator from Washington University in St. Louis. “Much of the orbital momentum of the Ultima Thule binary must have been drained away for them to come together like this. But we don’t know yet what processes were most important in making that happen.”

**Asteroid Bennu is spewing out dust as seen in the latest images from the OSIRIS-REx probe, which reached the near earth object last December: Bennu Particle Ejection Event – Jan. 19, 2019 – OSIRIS-REx Mission

“This view of asteroid Bennu ejecting particles from its surface on January 19 was created by combining two images taken by the NavCam 1 imager onboard NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft: a short exposure image (1.4 ms), which shows the asteroid clearly, and a long exposure image (5 sec), which shows the particles clearly. Other image processing techniques were also applied, such as cropping and adjusting the brightness and contrast of each layer. Date Taken: Jan. 19, 2019” – Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona/Lockheed Martin

This behavior was not expected: NASA Mission Reveals Asteroid Has Big Surprises | NASA

“The discovery of plumes is one of the biggest surprises of my scientific career,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “And the rugged terrain went against all of our predictions. Bennu is already surprising us, and our exciting journey there is just getting started.”

Shortly after the discovery of the particle plumes on Jan. 6, the mission science team increased the frequency of observations, and subsequently detected additional particle plumes during the following two months. Although many of the particles were ejected clear of Bennu, the team tracked some particles that orbited Bennu as satellites before returning to the asteroid’s surface.

The OSIRIS-REx team initially spotted the particle plumes in images while the spacecraft was orbiting Bennu at a distance of about one mile (1.61 kilometers). Following a safety assessment, the mission team concluded the particles did not pose a risk to the spacecraft. The team continues to analyze the particle plumes and their possible causes.

“The first three months of OSIRIS-REx’s up-close investigation of Bennu have reminded us what discovery is all about — surprises, quick thinking, and flexibility,” said Lori Glaze, acting director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “We study asteroids like Bennu to learn about the origin of the solar system. OSIRIS-REx’s sample will help us answer some of the biggest questions about where we come from.”

The mission will go through several different phases of its investigation of the asteroid starting with the Baseball Diamond Phase:

The in-depth study of Bennu begins in earnest during Detailed Survey: Baseball Diamond Phase. OSIRIS-REx will make multiple passes around Bennu to produce the wide range of viewing angles necessary to fully observe the asteroid. The spacecraft will also use its OTES spectrometer to map the chemical composition of Bennu’s entire surface. Images obtained during this phase will be of high enough resolution to produce digital terrain maps and global image mosaics for proposed sample sites. Bennu’s terrain will be surveyed in bulk and sections will be classified as either “safe” or “unsafe,” with the results visualized on a hazard map.

The phase’s name comes from the early stage of mission design when the stations the spacecraft would traverse were arranged in the shape of a baseball diamond.  Although the mission design has since evolved, the original name for the phase remains.

In 2023 the spacecraft will return to earth with samples of the asteroid’s surface, some of which is seen in these detailed images: A Region of Bennu’s Northern Hemisphere Close Up | NASA

This trio of images acquired by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft shows a wide shot and two close-ups of a region in asteroid Bennu’s northern hemisphere. The wide-angle image (left), obtained by the spacecraft’s MapCam camera, shows a 590-foot (180-meter) wide area with many rocks, including some large boulders, and a “pond” of regolith that is mostly devoid of large rocks. The two closer images, obtained by the high-resolution PolyCam camera, show details of areas in the MapCam image, specifically a 50-foot (15 meter) boulder (top) and the regolith pond (bottom). The PolyCam frames are 101 feet (31 meters) across and the boulder depicted is approximately the same size as a humpback whale.

The images were taken on February 25 while the spacecraft was in orbit around Bennu, approximately 1.1 miles (1.8 km) from the asteroid’s surface. The observation plan for this day provided for one MapCam and two PolyCam images every 10 minutes, allowing for this combination of context and detail of Bennu’s surface.

** Lunar sample containers unopened since Apollo astronauts filled them during EVAs on the surface will soon be examined by teams of researchers who will take advantage of modern instruments to attain better insights into what the materials say about the formation and subsequent development of the Moon: NASA Selects Teams to Study Untouched Moon Samples | NASA

NASA has selected nine teams to continue the science legacy of the Apollo missions by studying pieces of the Moon that have been carefully stored and untouched for nearly 50 years. A total of $8 million has been awarded to the teams.

“By studying these precious lunar samples for the first time, a new generation of scientists will help advance our understanding of our lunar neighbor and prepare for the next era of exploration of the Moon and beyond, “ said Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, DC. “This exploration will bring with it new and unique samples into the best labs right here on Earth.”

** Mars:

**** Opportunity rover’s last shot. While Opportunity has now gone quiet, it left an enormous legacy of data and images including a beautiful final parting panorama: Opportunity’s Parting Shot Was a Beautiful Panorama – NASA’s Mars Exploration Program

Opportunity’s final panorama with notations.

**** Huge caves on Mars appear more likely with the latest findings: New evidence for many large and extensive Martian cave systems | Behind The Black.

The second important implication of this finding, and the one that is possibly more important, is that this research suggests that there are many many many underground voids on Mars, formed by water, that could be found in many places. Some might be easily accessible. Some might require drilling into. In either case, they would provide ample locations for building habitable colonies.

And they would likely still have that water, now frozen into the underground ice table.

The possibilities are mind-boggling. They suggest that everyone studying Mars must rethink the surface features. The alienness of Mars means they might resemble Earth geology, but might have formed in ways we have not previously imagined. And the consequences of that alien formation might make future human colonization far easier.

****  Caves appear common on rocky worlds throughout our solar system: “The Planets Under Our Feet: Caves on Earth, Mars, and Beyond” –

Dr. Penelope Boston, NASA Ames Research Center New exploration indicates that caves may be more common on rocky and icy worlds in our Solar System than we have thought in the past. Caves below the Earth show us a very different planet than the familiar one we experience on the surface. Each dark cave system has its own micro-organisms and distinctive mineral and chemical properties. Dr. Boston takes us on a tour of the some of the most spectacular caves under the Earth and the unusual life-forms they harbor, and considers how the lessons they teach us can be applied to the exploration of the Solar System, especially the icy moons of the giant planets.

**** More Mars geology findings are highlighted by Bob Zimmerman who closely monitors the latest image releases from the orbiters:

The image shows numerous evidence of avalanches and erosion, both at its base and at its rim. None of these avalanches likely occurred during those catastrophic floods, but long afterward.

Signs of “landslides on the face of the mesa north of Hydraotes Chaos”. Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter HiRISE camera via Bob Zimmerman.

The top inset is shown to the left. Here very large sections of the the cliff face at the rim have broken off, dropping giant blocks downward. This material piles up to create an alluvial slope heading down to the floor of the canyon. On the upper cliff and on this slope the dark streaks indicate both past landslides as well as possible seeps of water coming out of the cliff face.

The bottom inset is shown next to the left. It focuses on the head of the largest landslide, and shows a flow at its base that resembles a gravitational collapse as shown in this science paper about Martian ground water.

You are staring at one of the unsolved mysteries on Mars. This surface texture of interconnected ridges and troughs, referred to as “brain terrain” is found throughout the mid-latitude regions of Mars. (This image is in Protonilus Mensae.)

This bizarrely textured terrain may be directly related to the water-ice that lies beneath the surface. One hypothesis is that when the buried water-ice sublimates (changes from a solid to a gas), it forms the troughs in the ice. The formation of these features might be an active process that is slowly occurring since HiRISE [MRO’s high resolution camera] has yet to detect significant changes in these terrains.

A section of a MRO HiRISE image showing a Mars region with an appearance named “Brain Terrain”. (Via Bob Zimmerman)

At today’s presentations at the 50th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas, scientists showed images and data [pdf] suggesting that many of the Martian gullies found on cliff faces are formed when the dust layer protecting underlying snow gets blown away and the exposed snow/ice then melts.

The image [below] was taken by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) in 2009, and has been cropped to post here. The white streaks are what they suggest is exposed ice/snow.

A section of a MRO HiRISE image that appears to show white streaks of water ice in a cliff gully.

** The locations of science spacecraft in our solar system are shown in this video from the Planetary Society:

Emily Lakdawalla takes us on a tour of the spacecraft currently exploring from within our solar system. All planets and spacecraft locations are shown at their location for April 1st, 2019.


Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto