Category Archives: Space Science

New Horizons: Sharpest image yet of Ultima Thule

The latest images of the Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule from New Horizons at JHU/APL:

New Horizons’ Newest and Best-Yet View of Ultima Thule

The wonders – and mysteries – of Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69 continue to multiply as NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft beams home new images of its New Year’s Day 2019 flyby target.

Ultima Thule. Release Date: January 24, 2019. Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

This image, taken during the historic Jan. 1 flyby of what’s informally known as Ultima Thule, is the clearest view yet of this remarkable, ancient object in the far reaches of the solar system – and the first small “KBO” ever explored by a spacecraft.

Obtained with the wide-angle Multicolor Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) component of New Horizons’ Ralph instrument, this image was taken when the KBO was 4,200 miles (6,700 kilometers) from the spacecraft, at 05:26 UT (12:26 a.m. EST) on Jan. 1 – just seven minutes before closest approach. With an original resolution of 440 feet (135 meters) per pixel, the image was stored in the spacecraft’s data memory and transmitted to Earth on Jan. 18-19. Scientists then sharpened the image to enhance fine detail. (This process – known as deconvolution – also amplifies the graininess of the image when viewed at high contrast.)

The oblique lighting of this image reveals new topographic details along the day/night boundary, or terminator, near the top. These details include numerous small pits up to about 0.4 miles (0.7 kilometers) in diameter. The large circular feature, about 4 miles (7 kilometers) across, on the smaller of the two lobes, also appears to be a deep depression. Not clear is whether these pits are impact craters or features resulting from other processes, such as “collapse pits” or the ancient venting of volatile materials.

Both lobes also show many intriguing light and dark patterns of unknown origin, which may reveal clues about how this body was assembled during the formation of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago. One of the most striking of these is the bright “collar” separating the two lobes.

“This new image is starting to reveal differences in the geologic character of the two lobes of Ultima Thule, and is presenting us with new mysteries as well,” said Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “Over the next month there will be better color and better resolution images that we hope will help unravel the many mysteries of Ultima Thule.”

New Horizons is approximately 4.13 billion miles (6.64 billion kilometers) from Earth, operating normally and speeding away from the Sun (and Ultima Thule) at more than 31,500 miles (50,700 kilometers) per hour. At that distance, a radio signal reaches Earth six hours and nine minutes after leaving the spacecraft.

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Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto

Space Science: Planetary rover update, Martian slope streaks, Lunar eclipse flash

Some space science items of interest:

** Planetary rover update: January 22, 2019 | Behind The Black – Bob Zimmerman reports on the status and plans for the Mars rovers and the Chinese Yutu-2 rover on the Moon.

Since November Curiosity has remained on the top of Vera Rubin Ridge, where it drilled its third successful hole there, out of a total of six drilling attempts. The failures were partly because of the hardness of the rock on the ridge, and partly because they are using a new drilling technique because of the failure of the drill’s feed mechanism. Instead of having the feed mechanism push the drill down into the rock, they use the robot arm itself. This has required care because the last thing they want to do is damage the arm itself.

The image [below] shows where Curiosity is heading in next year or two and was discussed in detail in my December 19, 2018 post, Curiosity’s future travels.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) image “Monitor Region Near Curiosity Rover” annotated by Robert Zimmerman at www.behindtheblack.com

** Planetary Scientists Continue to Puzzle Over the Mysterious Slope Streaks on Mars. Liquid? Sand? What’s Causing Them? – Universe Today – Investigations into what causes the long streaks down the sides of hill and mountain slopes on Mars.

“A splitting slope streak on Mars captured by HiRISE”. Credit NASA JPL,University of Arizona via Universe Today

Since they were first observed in the 1970s by the Viking missions, the slope streaks that periodically appear along slopes on Mars have continued to intrigue scientists. After years of study, scientists still aren’t sure exactly what causes them. While some believe that “wet” mechanisms are the culprit, others think they are the result of “dry” mechanisms.

Luckily, improvements in high-resolution sensors and imaging capabilities – as well as improved understanding of Mars’ seasonal cycles – is bringing us closer to an answer. Using a terrestrial analog from Bolivia, a research team from Sweden recently conducted a study that explored the mechanisms for streak formation and suggest that wet mechanisms appear to account for more, which could have serious implications for future missions to Mars.

** Lunar impact flash observed during eclipse – During the lunar “Blood Moon” eclipse on January 21st, a meteoroid impact was observed as seen in this video:

These images correspond to a lunar impact flash spotted by the telescopes operating in the framework of the MIDAS survey on Jan. 21, at 4:41:38 universal time (23:41:38 US eastern time). The impact took place during the totality phase of the lunar eclipse. The flash was produced by a rock (a meteoroid) that hit the lunar ground. The MIDAS Survey is being conducted by the University of Huelva and the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia.

Scott Manley discusses the impact:

More at:

Meteoroids hit the Moon all the time. Literally. NASA has been observing the impact flashes since 2005. Recently, other groups in Europe have joined the hunt. Flashes are typically observed once every 2 or 3 hours of observing time. Impactors range in size from softballs to boulders, liberating energies equal to tons of TNT when they strike.

The rare thing about this strike is that it was photographed during a full Moon, when lunar glare usually overwhelms the glow of any fireball. During the eclipse, Earth’s shadow turned lunar day into almost-night for an hour, allowing the fireball to be seen.

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Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto

Chang’e-4 in sleep mode, Videos of rover and the landing, + Cotton shoots sprout

[ Update Jan.16.2019: There has been some confusion about the photos of the cotton plant shoots. A couple of early images circulating in the Chinese press were actually from a ground unit. However, the one shown below is apparently from the lander:

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China’s Chang’e-4 mission on the far side of the Moon has begun initial operations with the scientific instruments on board the lander and has taken a short drive of the rover Yutu-2 (Jade Rabbit-2):

An earlier video showing the deployment of the rover:

A press conference was held this week with managers of the Chinese space program, including “Sun Zezhou, chief designer of the Chang’e-4 probe”. They discussed the challenges of operating the systems in the lunar environment: China’s new lunar rover faces challenges on moon’s far side – Xinhua | English.news.cn

Both the lander and the rover entered a “sleep mode” on Sunday as the first lunar night after the probe’s landing fell, according to Wu.

One night on the moon lasts about 14 days on the earth, during which the temperature falls as low as minus 180 degrees centigrade. There is no sunlight to provide power to the probe, which will survive the night with its thermal control system with a radioisotope heat source.

The landing went quite smoothly:

Sun told reporters that the Chang’e-4 probe had achieved the expected landing precision. The telemetry information and images taken by the probe showed that the spacecraft effectively avoided obstacles during its descent.

“It hovered at around 100 meters above the lunar surface and moved about 8 meters towards the southwestern direction. After its landing, we discovered large craters with a diameter of more than 10 meters on both the southern and northern sides of the probe, and it successfully avoided them,” Sun said.

Scott Manley analyzes the landing video:

I took the best video from an official source, then corrected it for real time, interpolated frames to smooth it using butterflow. Then using the high quality video I try to map through all the features we see to provide an idea of how large the craters are.

The scientific experiments on board the lander include a mini-biosphere to demonstrate growing plants on the Moon. A cotton-seed quickly sprouted: China Focus: Moon sees first cotton-seed sprout – Xinhua | English.news.cn

Professor Xie Gengxin, of Chongqing University and chief designer of the experiment, said a canister installed on the lander of the Chang’e-4 probe contained the seeds of cotton, rapeseed, potato and Arabidopsis, as well as eggs of the fruit fly and some yeast, to form a simple mini biosphere.

Images sent by the probe showed that a cotton sprout had started to grow, though no other plants were found growing.

A photo of the shoots: China’s plants sprout on moon’s far side – Chinadaily.com.cn

“At 8 pm on Jan 12, Chang’e 4 sends back the last photo of the bio test load showing that tender shoots have come out and the plants are growing well inside the sealed test can. It is the first time humans conducted a biological growth and cultivation experiment on the surface of the moon.” – Chongqing University and ChinaDaily.

The plant experiment, however, was a brief one. The seeds will not survive the night-time temperatures.

This sort of research from Chang’e-4 will provide data in support of Chinese human missions later:

A sample return mission – Chang’e-5 – is the next Moon mission on the agenda: China’s lunar exploration program to meet goal of sample returning by 2020: official – CCTVPLUS

The Chang’e-5 probe will be launched by the end of this year and will collect two kg of samples and bring them back to Earth. China plans to launch a probe in 2020 that will orbit, land and rove on Mars the following year, according to Wu.

More reports on Chang’e-5:

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Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto

Chang’e-4: Latest images and videos from lander and rover on lunar far side

Controllers of the Chinese space Chang’e-4 lander and Yutu-2 rover have reactivated the two systems after a standby period during the most intense period of solar heat during the lunar day. Various scientific instruments are being activated, the rover will soon being roving, and cameras are taking pictures such as these panoramas:

Chang’e-4 Yutu-2 first panorama

Here is a circular panorama of the scene around the lander:

Panorama of view around the lander.

The two lander and rover have taken images of one another:

Here’s an interesting video of the landing on January 3rd as seen from the spacecraft: Here’s the amazing footage of the Chang’e-4 landing on the far side of the Moon | gbtimes.com

More about the mission:

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Einstein’s Monsters: The Life and Times of Black Holes

China’s Chang’e-4 spacecraft lands on lunar far side

China has successfully placed its Chang’e-4 spacecraft onto the surface of the far side of the Moon. It appears that the rover has also been released. This is the first time that any spacecraft has landed on the lunar far side.

The first image taken by the Chang’e-4 spacecraft of its landing spot on the lunar far side.

The craft landed in the Von Kármán crater in the South Pole-Aitken Basin. and is able to communicate with earth using the Queqiao relay satellite, which was launched in May of 2018. The mission will look for clues to the geologic structure and history of the Moon: Chang’e-4 spacecraft – Science Magazine

Chang’e-4 was launched on 8 December 2018 from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan province. The landing site is in the Von Kármán crater in the South Pole-Aitken Basin. The basin was likely formed by a giant asteroid impact that might have brought material from the moon’s upper mantle to the surface; studying samples taken there might offer scientists the chance to learn more about the composition of the body’s interior. The moon’s far side has a much thicker, older crust and is pockmarked by more and deeper craters than the near side, where large dark plains called maria, formed by ancient lava flows, have erased much of the cratering. Chang’e-4’s observations could give clues to the processes behind the differences.

And there are also instruments to carry out astronomical, solar, and biological research:

The lander carries cameras for observations of the terrain and a low-frequency spectrometer to study solar bursts. The rover has a panoramic camera, a spectrometer for identifying surface materials, and a ground-penetrating radar to probe subsurface structures. Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, and Saudi Arabia contributed payloads that will measure radiation and use low-frequency radio astronomy to listen for faint signals lingering in the cosmos since the formation of the universe’s first stars, among other things. The lander also carries a minuscule biosphere developed by Chinese universities that will study the low-gravity interaction of a number of plants and silkworms.

This video shows various aspects of the Chang’e’4 mission with a mix of animations and real imagery:

The lander has a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) that will provide power for a mission that aims to last at least three months. A RTG is needed to keep the lander alive and active during the 2-week long cold nights when no solar power is available.

Deployment of the Yutu-2 rover. (Via Weibo.com)

More about Chang’e-4:

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Einstein’s Monsters: The Life and Times of Black Holes