Space sciences roundup – Apr.3.2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also:

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

From Jason Davis:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waypoint space telescope design rendering.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

** Mars underground water ice on the move:

From Leonard David:

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

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

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

** Recent analyses of Mars images by Bob Zimmerman:

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

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


Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto