Space sciences roundup – Mar.19.2020

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


** 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    

More information about Juno is at and


** 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.


** 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.


** 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 –

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.


** 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