Category Archives: Mars

Space sciences roundup – July.26.2020

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

Mars

** 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.

Astronomy

** 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.”

Sun

** 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.

Moon

** 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.

 

Video: Launch of the HOPE Mars Mission [Updated]

7:58  pm EDT: The upper stage firing went as planned and the probe was successfully deployed. Communications with the vehicle have been established and the solar panels were deployed. The spacecraft’s next job is to use its attitude thrusters to orient itself so as to maximize power generation from the sun. The probe will reach Mars next February.  After going into orbit, the spacecraft’s instruments will study the atmosphere and weather on the Red Planet.

6:31  pm EDT: The launch has succeeded so far in reaching low earth orbit. The upper stage with the probe is now in a coast period before the stage will fire its engine for 4 minutes to send the Hope probe on its route to Mars. The stage will then separate from the probe soon after the engine boost ends. The firing should start at around 6:54 pm EDT (22:54 UTC).

The countdown is nearing liftoff for the  launch of the UAE Hope orbiter mission to Mars on a Japanese H-IIA rocket from the Tenaghashima Space Centre in Japan. Below is the webcast.

5:35 pm EDT: Currently all systems are green for liftoff at 5:38 pm EDT.

Updates and background info:

=== Amazon Ad ===

Xtronaut: The Game of Solar System Exploration

Space sciences roundup – June.20.2020

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

Mars

** 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 – SpaceNews.com

** 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 – ecns.cn

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.

Sun

** 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.

Moon

** 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

** 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 | Astronomy.com

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?

Exoplanets

** 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):

Mars

** 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 – NASASpaceFlight.com

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

Astronomy

**  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

Sun

** 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 SpaceWeather.com for a daily reading of the sunspot number.

Moon

** 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)

SETI

** 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.? – Space.com

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.

=== Amazon Ad ===

The Demon in the Machine:
How Hidden Webs of Information Are Solving the Mystery of Life

Space sciences roundup – Mar.19.2020

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

Mars

** The next US Mars rover given name selected by middle-school student: Virginia Student Earns Honor of Naming NASA’s Next Mars Rover | NASA

ASA’s next Mars rover has a new name – Perseverance.

The name was announced Thursday by Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate, during a celebration at Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke, Virginia. Zurbuchen was at the school to congratulate seventh grader Alexander Mather, who submitted the winning entry to the agency’s “Name the Rover” essay contest, which received 28,000 entries from K-12 students from every U.S. state and territory.

“Alex’s entry captured the spirit of exploration,” said Zurbuchen. “Like every exploration mission before, our rover is going to face challenges, and it’s going to make amazing discoveries. It’s already surmounted many obstacles to get us to the point where we are today – processing for launch. Alex and his classmates are the Artemis Generation, and they’re going to be taking the next steps into space that lead to Mars. That inspiring work will always require perseverance. We can’t wait to see that nameplate on Mars.”

** A report on the selection of the target spot for Perseverance’s landing: Here’s How Scientists Mapped the Mars 2020 Rover’s Landing Site | The Planetary Society

NASA’s soon-to-be-named Mars 2020 rover launches in late July or early August and will arrive on Mars in February 2021. The rover will land near an ancient river delta. Deltas form as rivers deposit sediment from upstream sources into standing bodies of water, like lakes or oceans. On Earth, these areas tend to teem with life. The Mars 2020 rover will search for signs of past life while collecting soil and rock samples for future return to Earth.

Jezero crater is located at the northeastern edge of a volcanic region on Mars known as Syrtis Major. Credits: NASA Ames/USGS/JPL/Corrine Rojas via Planetary Society

** Meanwhile, the rover currently operating on Mars sent a new grand panorama: Curiosity Mars Rover Snaps 1.8 Billion-Pixel Panorama (narrated video)

NASA Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada guides this tour of the rover’s view of the Martian surface. This panorama showcases “Glen Torridon,” a region on the side of Mount Sharp that Curiosity is exploring. The panorama was taken between Nov. 24 and Dec. 1, 2019, when the Curiosity team was out for the Thanksgiving holiday. Since the rover would be sitting still with few other tasks to do while it waited for the team to return and provide its next commands, the rover had a rare chance to image its surroundings several days in a row without moving. Composed of more than 1,000 images and carefully assembled over the ensuing months, the larger version of this composite contains nearly 1.8 billion pixels of Martian landscape.

The interactive panorama:

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover produced this 360-degree panorama of “Glen Torridon,” a region on the side of Mount Sharp. The panorama was taken between Nov. 24 and Dec. 1, 2019, when the mission team was out for the Thanksgiving holiday. Since the rover would be sitting still with few other tasks to do while it waited for the team to return and provide its next commands, the rover had a rare chance to image its surroundings several days in a row without moving. Composed of more than 1,000 images and carefully assembled over the ensuing months, the larger version of this composite contains nearly 1.8 billion pixels of Martian landscape.

** Curiosity rover detects organic material in Martian rock:

NASA’s Curiosity rover has found new evidence preserved in rocks on Mars that suggests the planet could have supported ancient life, as well as new evidence in the Martian atmosphere that relates to the search for current life on the Red Planet. While not necessarily evidence of life itself, these findings are a good sign for future missions exploring the planet’s surface and subsurface.

The new findings – “tough” organic molecules in three-billion-year-old sedimentary rocks near the surface, as well as seasonal variations in the levels of methane in the atmosphere – appear in the June 8 edition of the journal Science.

Organic molecules contain carbon and hydrogen, and also may include oxygen, nitrogen and other elements. While commonly associated with life, organic molecules also can be created by non-biological processes and are not necessarily indicators of life.

** European/Russian ExoMars rover mission postponed till 2022: ExoMars to take off for the Red Planet in 2022 – ESA

The European Space Agency (ESA) and the Roscosmos Space Corporation have decided to postpone the launch of the second ExoMars mission to study the Red Planet to 2022.

The joint ESA-Roscosmos project team evaluated all the activities needed for an authorisation to launch, in order to analyse the risks and schedule. With due consideration of the recommendations provided by European and Russian Inspectors General, ExoMars experts have concluded that tests necessary to make all components of the spacecraft fit for the Mars adventure need more time to complete.

The primary goal of the mission is to determine if there has ever been life on Mars, and to better understand the history of water on the planet. The ExoMars rover, named Rosalind Franklin, includes a drill to access the sub-surface of Mars as well as a miniature life-search laboratory kept within an ultra-clean zone.

Problems with the parachutes arose last year and fully testing the solutions apparently left too little margin in the schedule:

The latest ExoMars parachutes dynamic extraction tests have been completed successfully at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the main parachutes are ready for the two final high-altitude drop tests in March in Oregon, US.

See also: Mars in limbo – The Space Review.

** China continues to aim for summer launch of the Huoxing orbiter/lander/rover mission to Mars:

China’s probe, called Huoxing, will include an orbiter, a lander and a rover — the first Mars probe to include all three. The project will have 13 scientific payloads, including several cameras, subsurface radar imagers and particle analyzers, as well as a magnetometer and magnetic-field detector. The mission’s scientific goals include studying the Martian morphology, geology, soil and water–ice distribution.

Wang says the coronavirus outbreak has affected the way his team works, but has not yet caused delays.

Several days ago, the team had to move six scientific payloads for the orbiter from Beijing to Shanghai, where they will be assembled. Instead of risking the team members getting infected on a plane or high-speed train, 3 people drove the 6 payloads in a car — a journey that took more than 12 hours.

An illustration of the rover mounted on the China’s Mars 2020 mission. Credits: Xinhua

** UAE Hope Mars orbiter set to launch this summer to study Martian atmosphere and climate history:

The Hope Probe will be the first probe to provide a complete picture of the Martian atmosphere and its layers when it reaches the red planet’s orbit in 2021. It will help answer key questions about the global Martian atmosphere and the loss of hydrogen and oxygen gases into space over the span of one Martian year.

Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre is responsible for the execution and supervision of all stages of the design, development and launch of the Hope Probe in 2020.

The UAE Space Agency is funding and supervising procedures and necessary details for the implementation of this project. Following a journey of several months, the probe is expected to enter the Red Planet’s orbit in 2021, coinciding with the Golden Jubilee of the Union.

Some specifications of the Hope Orbiter. Credits: HopeMarsMission on Twitter

The mission will launch this July on a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries H-IIA rocket.

More at Emirates mars mission | Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre – MBRSC -UAE.

Emirates Hope Orbiter in preparation for tests in vacuum chamber. Credits: UAE Space Program

** An update on recent activities of the Curiosity rover from Bob Zimmerman: Mars rover Update: March 4, 2020 | Behind The Black

Since my last rover update on January 13, 2020, Curiosity has finally moved on from the base of Western butte, where it spent more than a month drilling a hole and gathering a great deal of geological data. Rather than head downhill and around the plateau and back to its planned route (as indicated by the red line in the map to the right), the Curiosity science team decided to push upward and onto the Greenheugh Piedmont (as indicated by the yellow line).

They had always planned to reach the top of this plateau, but not for several years. First they were going to head east to study a recurring slope lineae (see my October 2019 update), an example of a dark streak that darkens and fades seasonally and could provide evidence of water seepage from below ground.

Map showing the trail of Curiosity’s recent roving. Credits: NASA with annotations by Bob Zimmerman

** Leonard David also describes Curiosity’s roving:

Curiosity Mast Camera Left image taken on Sol 2702, March 13, 2020. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS via Leonard David

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

An impact crater on Utopia Planitia that was subsequently enlarged by the sublimation of water ice. Credits: NASA, Univ. Arizona. Cropped by Bob Zimmerman

Solar system

** Juno continues to display the glorious magnificence of our largest planet:

**** Massive Beauty | NASA

NASA’s Juno mission captured this look at the southern hemisphere of Jupiter on Feb. 17, 2020, during the spacecraft’s most recent close approach to the giant planet.

Juno captures a view of the southern hemisphere of Jupiter. Credits: NASA and Kevin M. Gill

Not only is Jupiter the largest planet orbiting the Sun, it contains more than twice the amount of material of all other objects in the solar system combined — including all the planets, moons, asteroids and comets. In composition, Jupiter resembles a star, and scientists estimate that if it had been at least 80 times more massive at its formation, it could have become a type of star called a red dwarf rather than a planet.

While the universe’s most common elements, hydrogen and helium, make up most of Jupiter’s mass, the striking clouds that are visible at the top of its atmosphere are composed mostly of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide.

This high-resolution view is a composite of four images captured by the JunoCam imager and assembled by citizen scientist Kevin M. Gill. The images were taken on Feb. 17, 2020, between 10:31 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. PST (1:31 p.m. and 2:00 p.m. EST). During that time, the spacecraft was between about 30,700 and 62,400 miles (49,500 and 100,400 kilometers) from the tops of the planet’s clouds, at latitudes between about 50 and 68 degrees South.

**** Jupiter Storms Merging | NASA

This view of Jupiter’s atmosphere from NASA’s Juno spacecraft includes something remarkable: two storms caught in the act of merging.

Juno spots two big storms on Jupiter. Credits: NASA and Tanya Oleksuik

The two white ovals seen within the orange-colored band left of center are anticyclonic storms — that is, storms that rotate counter-clockwise. The larger of the two ovals has been tracked for many years, as it grew in size through mergers with other anticyclonic white ovals. JunoCam was fortunate to capture this new merger, which typically takes place over the course of only a few days. The event interests scientists because the ovals had approached each other months earlier, only to move apart again.

This merger may be the result of perturbations due to the proximity of Oval BA, which is the larger storm just to the north of the two merging, white ovals. Oval BA is the second largest anticyclonic vortex in Jupiter’s atmosphere, second only to the famous Great Red Spot. During this pass over Jupiter, Juno gave scientists their best views of Oval BA to date.

Citizen scientist Tanya Oleksuik created this color-enhanced image using data from the JunoCam camera. The original image was taken on Dec. 26, 2019, at 10:28 a.m. PST (1:28 p.m. EST) as the Juno spacecraft performed its 24th close flyby of the planet. At the time, the spacecraft was about 44,900 miles (72,200 kilometers) from the tops of Jupiter’s clouds, at a latitude of about 60 degrees South.

JunoCam’s raw images are available for the public to peruse and process into image products at https://missionjuno.swri.edu/junocam/processing.    

More information about Juno is at https://www.nasa.gov/juno and https://missionjuno.swri.edu.

Astronomy

** A cosmic Tarantula offers clues to the births of huge stars: On the Origin of Massive Stars -ESA/Hubble

This scene of stellar creation, captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, sits near the outskirts of the famous Tarantula Nebula. This cloud of gas and dust, as well as the many young and massive stars surrounding it, is the perfect laboratory to study the origin of massive stars.

This image shows a region of space called LHA 120-N150. It is a substructure of the gigantic Tarantula Nebula. The latter is the largest known stellar nursery in the local Universe. The nebula is situated more than 160 000 light-years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a neighbouring dwarf irregular galaxy that orbits the Milky Way.

The bright pink cloud and the young stars surrounding it in this image taken with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have the uninspiring name LHA 120-N 150. This region of space is located on the outskirts of the Tarantula Nebula, which is the largest known stellar nursery in the local Universe. The nebula is situated over 160 000 light-years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a neighbouring irregular dwarf galaxy that orbits the Milky Way.

The Large Magellanic Cloud has had one or more  close encounters in the past, possibly with the Small Magellanic Cloud. These interactions have caused an episode of energetic star formation in our tiny neighbour — part of which is visible as the Tarantula Nebula.

Also known as 30 Doradus or NGC 2070, the Tarantula Nebula owes its name to the arrangement of bright patches that somewhat resemble the legs of a tarantula. It measures nearly 1000 light-years across. Its proximity, the favourable inclination of the Large Magellanic Cloud, and the absence of intervening dust make the Tarantula Nebula one of the best laboratories in which to study the formation of stars, in particular massive stars. This nebula has an exceptionally high concentration of massive stars, often referred to as super star clusters.

Astronomers have studied LHA 120-N 150 to learn more about the environment in which massive stars form. Theoretical models of the formation of massive stars suggest that they should form within clusters of stars; but observations indicate that up to ten percent of them also formed in isolation. The giant Tarantula Nebula with its numerous substructures is the perfect laboratory in which to resolve this puzzle as in it massive stars can be found both as members of clusters and in isolation.

With the help of Hubble, astronomers try to find out whether the isolated stars visible in the nebula truly formed alone or just moved away from their stellar siblings. However, such a study is not an easy task; young stars, before they are fully formed — especially massive ones — look very similar to dense clumps of dust.

LHA 120-N 150 contains several dozen of these objects. They are a mix of unclassified sources — some probably young stellar objects and others probably dust clumps. Only detailed analysis and observations will reveal their true nature and that will help to finally solve the unanswered question of the origin of massive stars.

Hubble has observed the Tarantula Nebula and its substructures in the past — always being interested in the formation and evolution of stars.

Sun

** An update on solar activity from Bob Zimmerman: Sunspot update: The flatline resumes | Behind The Black

NOAA this week released its February update of its monthly graph showing the long term sunspot activity of the Sun. Below is my monthly version, annotated as I have done every month since 2011.

After a tiny uptick in sunspot activity in January, the Sun resumed the unprecedented flatlining of sunspot activity that began last June. Since then, the Sun has produced practically no sunspots, a drought that as far as I can tell has never happened since the 11-year sunspot cycle resumed in the 1700s (after the grand minimum in the 1600s) and astronomers began counting sunspots.

Moon

** More about China’s lunar sample return mission: China’s Lunar Sample Handling Plans Detailed – Leonard David

China’s Chang’e-5 robotic lunar sample return mission is slated for liftoff later this year. That venture represents the third phase of China’s lunar exploration project -returning samples from the Moon.

The reported candidate landing region for China’s Chang’e‐5 lunar sample return mission is the Rümker region, located in the northern Oceanus Procellarum. The area is geologically complex and known for its volcanic activity.

The Chang’e-5 mission will retrieve and return to Earth up to 4.4 pounds (2 kilograms) of lunar surface and subsurface samples.

** Yutu-2 reveals the structure beneath the lunar surface near the Chang’e-4 landing site on the Moon’s far side: Chang’e 4 and Yutu-2 Reveal Moon’s Sub-surface — The Space Resource

After landing for the first time on the Moon’s farside, the Chang’e-4 lander deployed the Yutu-2 rover, which utilized a dual-frequency Lunar Penetrating Radar (LPR). The LPR was previously tested on the Chang’e-3, and uses ground penetrating radar at 60 MHz and 500 MHz. The LPR instrument collected data during the first two lunar days of Yutu-2’s journey across the Von Kármán crater. While capable of far less depth than instruments like JAXA’s LRS, the LPR on Yutu-2 has a much finer vertical resolution of about 30 centimeter.

Using the high frequency option, radar data from LPR revealed good signal penetration in the areas Yutu-2 traveled. This greatly exceeded the performance of the Chang’e-3 ground penetrating radar. After combining the radargram, tomographic image, and quantitative analysis, the team produced the first picture of the lunar farside subsurface (image above).

A diagram of the lunar subsurface structure as detected by the radar system on Yutu-2. Credits: Chunlai Li, et al 2020 via The Space Resource

More about the Yutu-2’s rovings and research:

Asteroids and Comets

** Follow comet ATLAS as it dives towards the sun: Comet Atlas Is Brightening Faster Than Expected – Spaceweather.com

Get ready for a wild ride. Comet ATLAS (C2019 Y4) is plunging toward the sun and, if it doesn’t fly apart first, it could become one of the brightest comets in years.

“Comet ATLAS continues to brighten much faster than expected,” says Karl Battams of the Naval Research Lab in Washington DC. “Some predictions for its peak brightness now border on the absurd.”

The comet was discovered in December 2019 by the Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS) in Hawaii. Astronomers quickly realized it might be special. On May 31, 2020, Comet ATLAS will pass deep inside the orbit of Mercury only 0.25 AU from the sun. If it can survive the blast furnace of solar heating, it could put on a good show.

However, no one expected the show to start this soon. More than 2 months before perihelion (closest approach to the sun), Comet ATLAS is already “heating up.” The worldwide Comet Observation Database shows it jumping from magnitude +17 in early February to +8 in mid-March–a 4000-fold increase in brightness. It could become visible to the naked eye in early April.

“Right now the comet is releasing huge amounts of its frozen volatiles (gases),” says Battams. “That’s why it’s brightening so fast.”

Check out the Comet C/2019 Y4 ATLAS Images.

Exoplanets

** Imaging Exoplanets: From Adaptive Optics to Starshades In SpaceSETI Institute

Direct imaging of exoplanets – “seeing” the planet as a separate point of light near a star – is extremely difficult, and several decades ago, scientists used to say that it would be impossible to image Earth-like exoplanets. Today this seems possible, using some combination of adaptive optics technology, coronagraphs, or starshades.

Adaptive lets telescopes on the ground compensate for the Earth’s atmosphere. Coronagraphs use ultraprecise masks inside telescopes to block the diffracted light from a bright star. Starshades combine a space telescope with a huge flower-shaped spacecraft that flies in formation to block the starlight before it even reaches the telescope…

So what are we waiting for? What are the technical challenges associated with developing an exoplanet-hunting space telescopes? The future NASA Wide-Field Infrared Survey telescope could test out some of these technologies by studying Jupiter-like planets, and the proposed Habitable Planets Explorer (HabEX) mission could fully integrate them in a search for earthlike planets around dozens of nearby stars.

** The Planetary Society is supporting a project to find and observe 100 Earths, i.e. earth size planets in habitable zones of their stars.

More on this Planetary Radio program:

Yale astronomer Debra Fischer has spent decades hunting for exoplanets. Now she leads the 100 Earths project that includes the Lowell Observatory and astrophysicist Joe Llama. Debra and Joe join us for a conversation about this search for worlds that could be like our own. There’s big space news in this week’s edition of The Downlink at the top of the show, and Bruce Betts takes us on his weekly tour of the night sky, though it’s the pre-dawn sky that may hold the most wonder. Try your hand at the space trivia contest!

=== Amazon Ad ===

More Things in the Heavens:
How Infrared Astronomy Is Expanding Our View of the Universe