Category Archives: Space Science

New Horizons: High-res images of Ultima Thule + New documentary “Summiting the Solar System”

On Friday, the New Horizons mission released the highest resolution images yet of the Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule, which the probe flew by on January 1st: Spot On! New Horizons Spacecraft Returns Its Sharpest Views of Ultima Thule

The mission team called it a “stretch goal” – just before closest approach, precisely point the cameras on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft to snap the sharpest possible pics of the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed Ultima Thule, its New Year’s flyby target and the farthest object ever explored.

Now that New Horizons has sent those stored flyby images back to Earth, the team can enthusiastically confirm that its ambitious goal was met.

These new images of Ultima Thule – obtained by the telephoto Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) just 6½ minutes before New Horizons’ closest approach to the object (officially named 2014 MU69) at 12:33 a.m. EST on Jan. 1 – offer a resolution of about 110 feet (33 meters) per pixel. Their combination of high spatial resolution and a favorable viewing angle gives the team an unprecedented opportunity to investigate the surface, as well as the origin and evolution, of Ultima Thule – thought to be the most primitive object ever encountered by a spacecraft.

“Bullseye!” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI). “Getting these images required us to know precisely where both tiny Ultima and New Horizons were — moment by moment – as they passed one another at over 32,000 miles per hour in the dim light of the Kuiper Belt, a billion miles beyond Pluto. This was a much tougher observation than anything we had attempted in our 2015 Pluto flyby.

Highest Resolution Image of Ultima Thule: The most detailed images of Ultima Thule — obtained just minutes before the spacecraft’s closest approach at 12:33 a.m. EST on Jan. 1 — have a resolution of about 110 feet (33 meters) per pixel. Their combination of higher spatial resolution and a favorable viewing geometry offer an unprecedented opportunity to investigate the surface of Ultima Thule, believed to be the most primitive object ever encountered by a spacecraft. Full size image and caption

And here is a clip of the fly-by:

New Horizons scientists created this movie from 14 different images taken by the New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) shortly before the spacecraft flew past the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed Ultima Thule (officially named 2014 MU69) on Jan. 1, 2019. The central frame of this sequence was taken on Jan. 1 at 5:26:54 UT (12:26 a.m. EST), when New Horizons was 4,117 miles (6,640 kilometers) from Ultima Thule, some 4.1 billion miles (6.6 billion kilometers) from Earth. Ultima Thule nearly completely fills the LORRI image and is perfectly captured in the frames, an astounding technical feat given the uncertain location of Ultima Thule and the New Horizons spacecraft flying past it at over 32,000 miles per hour.

(Note: To loop the video, right button click on it and select “Loop” from the list of options shown.)


Here are the two parts of the documentary, New Horizons – Summiting the Solar System, about the New Horizons fly-by of Ultima Thule:

Summiting the Solar System is a story of exploration at its most ambitious and extreme. On January 1, 2019, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flies by a small Kuiper Belt Object known scientifically as 2014 MU69, but nicknamed “Ultima Thule.” Ultima is four billion miles from Earth, and will be the most ancient and most distant world ever explored close up. It is expected to offer discoveries about the origin and evolution of our solar system. Chosen by the team and the public, the nickname honors the mythical land beyond the edges of the known world. But “Summiting” is much more than the story of a sophisticated, plutonium-fueled robotic spacecraft exploring far from the Sun. The New Horizons mission is powered as much by the passions of a small team of humans—men and women, scientists and engineers—for whom pushing the frontiers of the known, climbing the very peaks of the possible, has been the dream of many decades.

“Summiting” goes behind the scenes of the most ambitious occultation campaigns ever mounted, as scientists deployed telescopes to Senegal and Colombia in 2018, and Argentina, South Africa and New Zealand in 2017, to glimpse Ultima as it passed in front of a star, and gathered data on the object’s size and orbit that has been essential to planning the flyby. Mission scientists recall the astonishing scientific success of flying through the Pluto system in 2015, and use comparative planetology to show how Earth and Pluto are both amazingly different and—with glaciers, tall mountains, volcanoes and blue skies—awesomely similar. Appealing to space junkies and adrenaline junkies alike, “Summiting” brings viewers along for the ride of a lifetime as New Horizons pushes past Pluto and braves an even more hazardous unknown.


Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto

The Opportunity Rover mission declared over but other missions on Mars continue

After several months of futile efforts to contact Opportunity, which went silent last year during a dust storm that covered most of Mars, NASA today officially declared the end of the rover’s mission:

This video gives a brief review of Opportunity’s 15 years of exploration:

Opportunity left a long trail of accomplishments behind it: Look Back at Opportunity’s Record-Setting Mission – NASA

In this image from 2010, Opportunity used its navigation camera for this northward view of tracks the rover left on a drive from one energy-favorable position on a sand ripple to another. The rover team called this strategy “hopping from lily pad to lily pad.”

The Opportunity rover stopped communicating with Earth when a severe Mars-wide dust storm blanketed its location in June 2018. After more than a thousand commands to restore contact, engineers in the Space Flight Operations Facility at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) made their last attempt to revive Opportunity Tuesday, to no avail. The solar-powered rover’s final communication was received June 10.

Designed to last just 90 Martian days and travel 1,100 yards (1,000 meters), Opportunity vastly surpassed all expectations in its endurance, scientific value and longevity. In addition to exceeding its life expectancy by 60 times, the rover traveled more than 28 miles (45 kilometers) by the time it reached its most appropriate final resting spot on Mars – Perseverance Valley.

The final transmission, sent via the 70-meter Mars Station antenna at NASA’s Goldstone Deep Space Complex in California, ended a multifaceted, eight-month recovery strategy in an attempt to compel the rover to communicate.


Meanwhile, activities of the other missions on Mars continue. The InSight lander in December deployed the seismometer and this week placed the heat probe onto the surface:

From the NASA JPL article:

NASA’s InSight lander has placed its second instrument on the Martian surface. New images confirm that the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package, or HP3, was successfully deployed on Feb. 12 about 3 feet (1 meter) from InSight’s seismometer, which the lander recently covered with a protective shield. HP3 measures heat moving through Mars’ subsurface and can help scientists figure out how much energy it takes to build a rocky world.

Equipped with a self-hammering spike, mole, the instrument will burrow up to 16 feet (5 meters) below the surface, deeper than any previous mission to the Red Planet. For comparison, NASA’s Viking 1 lander scooped 8.6 inches (22 centimeters) down. The agency’s Phoenix lander, a cousin of InSight, scooped 7 inches (18 centimeters) down.

“We’re looking forward to breaking some records on Mars,” said HP3 Principal Investigator Tilman Spohn of the German Aerospace Center (DLR), which provided the heat probe for the InSight mission. “Within a few days, we’ll finally break ground using a part of our instrument we call the mole.”

NASA’s InSight Prepares to Take Mars’ Temperature. NASA’s InSight lander set its heat probe, called the Heat and Physical Properties Package (HP3), on the Martian surface on Feb. 12. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/DLR. › Full image and caption


Check out a selection of recent images of Mars from the Curiosity Rover: Curiosity Mars Rover: Scenic Shots –

Curiosity Mastcam Left Sol 2313 February 7, 2019
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS


Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto

Space science roundup – Feb.2.2019

A sampling of space and solar science items of interest:

** Parker Solar Probe update:  All Systems Go As Parker Solar Probe Begins Second Sun Orbit – Parker Solar Probe

On Jan. 19, 2019, just 161 days after its launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe completed its first orbit of the Sun, reaching the point in its orbit farthest from our star, called aphelion. The spacecraft has now begun the second of 24 planned orbits, on track for its second perihelion, or closest approach to the Sun, on April 4, 2019.

Parker Solar Probe’s position, speed and round-trip light time as of Jan. 28, 2019. Track the spacecraft online.

** Caves and lava tubes on Mars could provide good locations for early settlements:  The many pits/caves of Mars | Behind The Black

That these pits are all in a line, and that they also in line with a shallow straight depression, strongly suggests that they are skylights into a lava tube below. Located to the northwest of Arsia Mons, the southeast-to-northwest trend of the line reinforces this conclusion, suggesting that we are looking at surface evidence of an underground lava tube that flowed down from Arsia Mons, when that giant volcano was active, eons ago.

Pits Near Arsia Mons. HiRISE on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

** Watch a storm on Jupiter as captured by the Juno probe: Jupiter Storm Tracker | NASA

A giant, spiraling storm in Jupiter’s southern hemisphere is captured in this animation from NASA’s Juno spacecraft. The storm is approximately 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometers) across.

The counterclockwise motion of the storm, called Oval BA, is clearly on display. A similar rotation can be seen in the famous Great Red Spot at the top of the animation.

Juno took the nine images used to produce this movie sequence on Dec. 21, between 9:24 a.m. PST (12:24 p.m. EST) and 10:07 a.m. PST (1:07 p.m. EST). At the time the images were taken, the spacecraft was between approximately 15,400 miles (24,800 kilometers) and 60,700 miles (97,700 kilometers) from the planet’s cloud tops above southern latitudes spanning about 36 to 74 degrees.

Citizen scientists Gerald Eichstädt and Seán Doran created this animation using data from the spacecraft’s JunoCam imager.

JunoCam’s raw images are available for the public to peruse and to process into image products at:   

More information about Juno is at: and

** Curiosity sensors measure local gravity and researchers use the data to estimate local ground densities: ‘Mars Buggy’ Curiosity Measures a Mountain’s Gravity | NASA

In a new paper in Science, the researchers detail how they repurposed sensors used to drive the Curiosity rover and turned them into gravimeters, which measure changes in gravitational pull. That enabled them to measure the subtle tug from rock layers on lower Mount Sharp, which rises 3 miles (5 kilometers) from the base of Gale Crater and which Curiosity has been climbing since 2014. The results? It turns out the density of those rock layers is much lower than expected.  

Just like a smartphone, Curiosity carries accelerometers and gyroscopes. Moving your smartphone allows these sensors to determine its location and which way it’s facing. Curiosity’s sensors do the same thing but with far more precision, playing a crucial role in navigating the Martian surface on each drive. Knowing the rover’s orientation also lets engineers accurately point its instruments and multidirectional, high-gain antenna.

A Mars Buggy and a Moon Buggy: Side-by-side images depict NASA’s Curiosity rover (left) and a moon buggy driven during the Apollo 16 mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Full image & caption ›

By happy coincidence, the rover’s accelerometers can be used like Apollo 17’s gravimeter. The accelerometers detect the gravity of the planet whenever the rover stands still. Using engineering data from the first five years of the mission, the paper’s authors measured the gravitational tug of Mars on the rover. As Curiosity ascends Mount Sharp, the mountain adds additional gravity — but not as much as scientists expected.

“The lower levels of Mount Sharp are surprisingly porous,” said lead author Kevin Lewis of Johns Hopkins University. “We know the bottom layers of the mountain were buried over time. That compacts them, making them denser. But this finding suggests they weren’t buried by as much material as we thought.”

** Sounding rocket flies through the Aurora Borealis after launch from Norway:  To Catch a Wave, Rocket Launches From Top of World | NASA

On Jan. 4, 2019, at 4:37 a.m. EST the CAPER-2 mission launched from the Andøya Space Center in Andenes, Norway, on a 4-stage Black Brant XII sounding rocket. Reaching an apogee of 480 miles high before splashing down in the Arctic Sea, the rocket flew through active aurora borealis, or northern lights, to study the waves that accelerate electrons into our atmosphere.

CAPER-2, short for Cusp Alfvén and Plasma Electrodynamics Rocket-2, is a sounding rocket mission — a type of spacecraft that carries scientific instruments on short, targeted trips to space before falling back to Earth. In addition to their relatively low price tags and quick development time, sounding rockets are ideally suited for launching into transient events — like the sudden formation of the aurora borealis, or northern lights.

An animation of the CAPER-2 sounding rocket flight into the aurora borealis.

For CAPER-2 scientists, flying through an aurora provides a peek into a process as fundamental as it is complex: How do particles get accelerated throughout space? NASA studies this phenomenon in an effort to better understand not only the space environment surrounding Earth — and thus protect our technology in space from radiation — but also to help understand the very nature of stars and atmospheres throughout the solar system and beyond.


Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto

Videos: TMRO Orbit 12.04 – “A possible goodby to the Opportunity Rover”

The latest episode of the space show is now available: A possible goodbye to the Opportunity Rover – Orbit 12.04

While the Opportunity rover isn’t officially dead yet, at this point engineers seem to be struggling to get communications restored. It’s possible there could be a eureka moment, but for now Oppy remains silent. We chat about our favorite Opportunity Science, Moments and even enjoy the launch itself.

This week we also chat about Stratolaunch history and Future (by way of community vote), Blue Origin Test Flights and Onboard Science and the recent higher-resolution picture of Ultima Thule from New Horizons.

Space news is now presented by TMRO in a separate video:

This is your space news update for January 30th, 2019. Our Space Mike hologram is back, in non hologram form this week to deliver Launch Minute as well as an update on the SpaceX DM-1 mission. We also chat about the recent Blue Origin Test Flight and the ground breaking for their new engine production facility. OneWeb may have access to a lower cost ground based system for their upcoming satellite constellation. And finally, a quick update on NASA’s Opportunity Rover.

A TMRO Science program was also webcast: Breaking down ocean waste with bioremediation – Discovery 02.01

Dr. Rose Jones of Bigelow Lab for Ocean Sciences joins us on TMRO.Science to talk about Deep-sea microbial communities, extremophiles and bioremediation of acid mine drainage sites. How these systems all interact and can be used to help break down ocean waste.


Galaxy Girls: 50 Amazing Stories of Women in Space.

Space science: Deep water on Mars, Rovers update, & Juno mission midway

A sampling of planetary science news:

** Yet more Mars water: A new study finds evidence for a deep groundwater table on Mars: Well water likely available across Mars | Behind The Black

A science paper released today and available for download [pdf] cites evidence from about two dozen deep impact craters located from the equator to 37 degrees north latitude that Mars has a ground ice table at an elevation that also corresponds to other shoreline features.

The third take-away from this paper however is possibly the most important. The evidence suggests that this deep groundwater water table (as ice) almost certainly still exists at all latitudes, though almost entirely underground. From a future explorer’s perspective, this data reinforces the possibility that water will be accessible across much of the Martian surface. All you will have to do is dig a well, something humans have been doing on Earth for eons.

Diagram of surface feature evidence for a deep ground water table

** Curiosity on the move:  The Curiosity rover continues its long slow methodical trek up Mount Sharp – Curiosity Says Farewell to Mars’ Vera Rubin Ridge | NASA

NASA’s Curiosity rover has taken its last selfie on Vera Rubin Ridge and descended toward a clay region of Mount Sharp. The twisting ridge on Mars has been the rover’s home for more than a year, providing scientists with new samples — and new questions — to puzzle over.

On Dec. 15, Curiosity drilled its 19th sample at a location on the ridge called Rock Hall. On Jan. 15, the spacecraft used its Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera on the end of its robotic arm to take a series of 57 pictures, which were stitched together into this selfie. The “Rock Hall” drill hole is visible to the lower left of the rover; the scene is dustier than usual at this time of year due to a regional dust storm.

Curiosity has been exploring the ridge since September of 2017. It’s now headed into the “clay-bearing unit,” which sits in a trough just south of the ridge. Clay minerals in this unit may hold more clues about the ancient lakes that helped form the lower levels on Mount Sharp.

A selfie taken by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover on Sol 2291 (January 15) at the “Rock Hall” drill site, located on Vera Rubin Ridge. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS Full image and caption

** Last hope for Opportunity: NASA JPL will try some new techniques in hopes of awakening the long silent Opportunity rover – Rover Team Beaming New Commands to Opportunity on Mars – NASA JPL

Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, have begun transmitting a new set of commands to the Opportunity rover in an attempt to compel the 15-year-old Martian explorer to contact Earth. The new commands, which will be beamed to the rover during the next several weeks, address low-likelihood events that could have occurred aboard Opportunity, preventing it from transmitting.

The rover’s last communication with Earth was received June 10, 2018, as a planet-wide dust storm blanketed the solar-powered rover’s location on Mars.

“We have and will continue to use multiple techniques in our attempts to contact the rover,” said John Callas, project manager for Opportunity at JPL. “These new command strategies are in addition to the ‘sweep and beep’ commands we have been transmitting up to the rover since September.” With “sweep and beep,” instead of just listening for Opportunity, the project sends commands to the rover to respond back with a beep.

** Juno midway in Jupiter mission: The Juno spacecraft in December completed its 16th orbit of Jupiter, halfway to the 32 orbit target to complete its primary mission – NASA’s Juno Mission Halfway to Jupiter Science | NASA

“With our 16th science flyby, we will have complete global coverage of Jupiter, albeit at coarse resolution, with polar passes separated by 22.5 degrees of longitude,” said Jack Connerney, Juno deputy principal investigator from the Space Research Corporation in Annapolis, Maryland. “Over the second half of our prime mission — science flybys 17 through 32 — we will split the difference, flying exactly halfway between each previous orbit. This will provide coverage of the planet every 11.25 degrees of longitude, providing a more detailed picture of what makes the whole of Jupiter tick.”

Launched on Aug. 5, 2011, from Cape Canaveral, Florida, the spacecraft entered orbit around Jupiter on July 4, 2016. Its science collection began in earnest on the Aug. 27, 2016, flyby. During these flybys, Juno’s suite of sensitive science instruments probes beneath the planet’s obscuring cloud cover and studies Jupiter’s auroras to learn more about the planet’s origins, interior structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere.

“We have already rewritten the textbooks on how Jupiter’s atmosphere works, and on the complexity and asymmetry of its magnetic field,” said Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno, from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “The second half should provide the detail that we can use to refine our understanding of the depth of Jupiter’s zonal winds, the generation of its magnetic field, and the structure and evolution of its interior.”

** A sampling of recent images from Juno:

**** Juno’s SRU Captures Jupiter Lightning

Juno’s Radiation Monitoring Investigation used the Stellar Reference Unit (SRU) star camera to collect this high-resolution image Jupiter’s northern auroral oval on May 24, 2018 (Perijove 13). Also present in the image are several small bright dots and streaks — signatures of high energy relativistic electrons from polar beams that are penetrating the camera. The large bright dot in the lower right corner of the image is a flash of Jupiter’s lightning. Juno was less than 37,000 miles (60,000 km) from the cloud tops when this SRU image was collected — the closest view of Jupiter’s aurora with a visible light imager.

**** Juno’s Latest Flyby of Jupiter Captures Two Massive Storms

“This image of Jupiter’s turbulent southern hemisphere was captured by NASA’s Juno spacecraft as it performed its most recent close flyby of the gas giant planet on Dec. 21, 2018. This new perspective captures the notable Great Red Spot, as well as a massive storm called Oval BA. The storm reached its current size when three smaller spots collided and merged in the year 2000. The Great Red Spot, which is about twice as wide as Oval BA, may have formed from the same process centuries ago.” – NASA JPL

**** PJ12-83 – Jupiter during Perijove 17

Jupiter during Juno 17th orbit. Credits: Kevin M. Gill at Junocam public image processing gallery
**** Jupiter at home in the Milky Way

“Jupiter at Home in the Milky Way” – Credits: CosmEffect at  Junocam public image processing gallery
See also


Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto