Space sciences roundup – April.22.2020

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


** NASA’s Perseverance rover in final preparations for launch to Mars in July:

With 13 weeks to go before the launch period of NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover opens, final preparations of the spacecraft continue at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. On April 8, the assembly, test and launch operations team completed a crucial mass properties test of the rover.

Precision mass properties measurements are essential to a safe landing on Mars because they help ensure that the spacecraft travels accurately throughout its trip to the Red Planet – from launch through its entry, descent and landing.

On April 6, the meticulous three-day process began with Perseverance being lifted onto the rover turnover fixture. The team then slowly rotated the rover around its x-axis – an imaginary line that extends through the rover from its tail to its front – to determine its center of gravity (the point at which weight is evenly dispersed on all sides) relative to that axis.

** Perseverance’s helicopter has been attached:

** China to launch lander/rover to Mars in July:

** UAE Hope orbiter ready for shipment to Japan for launch to Mars:

If all goes smoothly this summer, three new spacecraft will launch toward the Red Planet, including the Arab world’s first interplanetary probe, dubbed Hope Mars Mission.

Construction on that spacecraft wrapped up earlier this year in the United Arab Emirates in preparation for its July launch. The launch will come less than a year after another major milestone for the country: In September 2019 its first spaceflyer, Hazzaa Ali Almansoori, launched aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket and spent a week living and working on the International Space Station.

“The Hope Probe project carries the hopes and ambitions of the Emirati nation and the aspirations of the Arab and Islamic people for a brighter future,” Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, said in a statement. “We seek to send a message of peace and hope to the world, and envision a glorious future in which knowledge and scientific expertise are freely shared between nations.”

The final component added to the UAE Hope spacecraft was a plaque enscribed with, “The power of hope shortens the distance between the earth and the sky.” Credits: UAE

** Leonard David updates on Curiosity rover’s rovings:

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


** The Space Show – Fri, 04/03/2020Dr. David Kipping discussed “his research [on] using Earth as a giant telescope from a far distance from Earth”.


** The latest on the sunspot count:

… the overall paucity of sunspots over the last year has continued, with March having only two sunspots, as indicated by the SILSO graph to the right. Both spots had magnetic polarities linking them to upcoming solar maximum, not the older now fading cycle.

Since June 2019 the Sun has averaged between one or two sunspots per month, with the number of spots linked to the new cycle steadily increasing over time. Though the numbers remain tiny, far lower than seen during the last solar minimum — considered the deepest and longest in a century — the new cycle sunspots strongly suggest we will have a solar maximum in the next five years, rather than experience a grand minimum with no sunspots for decades.

The new NOAA graph also makes it very easy to compare today’s minimum with all past minimums. A quick scan shows that we had similar blank stretches during the 1810, 1823, and 1912 minimums. In both centuries we saw two consecutive weak maximums linked to these deep minimums. All this suggests to me that the next maximum will be weak too. Some scientists agree, with some not discounting the possibility of a grand minimum.


** Chang’e-4 lander and Yutu-2 rover continue operations during 17th lunar day:

The lander and rover of the Chang’e-4 probe have resumed work for the 17th lunar day on the far side of the moon after “sleeping” during the extremely cold night.

The lander woke up at 1:24 p.m. Friday (Beijing time), and the rover awoke at 8:57 p.m. Thursday. Both are in normal working order, according to the Lunar Exploration and Space Program Center of the China National Space Administration.

The Chang’e-4 probe, launched on Dec. 8, 2018, made the first-ever soft landing on the Von Karman Crater in the South Pole-Aitken Basin on the far side of the moon on Jan. 3, 2019.

A lunar day equals 14 days on Earth, and a lunar night is the same length. The Chang’e-4 probe, switching to dormant mode during the lunar night due to the lack of solar power, has survived about 470 Earth days on the moon.

The rover Yutu-2, or Jade Rabbit-2, has worked much longer than its three-month design life, becoming the longest-working lunar rover on the moon.

Later this year, China plans to send a mission to the Moon to gather a sample of the surface and bring it back to earth: China wants a piece of the moon. Here’s how it plans to handle lunar samples. –

China’s Chang’e 5 robotic moon mission is scheduled to launch later this year. That venture represents the third phase of China’s Chang’e lunar exploration program: returning samples from the moon.

The reported candidate landing region for Chang’e 5 is the Rümker region, located in the northern Oceanus Procellarum (“Ocean of Storms”). The area is geologically complex and known for its volcanic activity.

The Chang’e 5 mission has four main parts: an orbiter, ascender, lander and Earth reentry module, which will contain up to 4.4 lbs. (2 kilograms) of lunar surface and subsurface samples.

** Impactor made a hole-in-one on the Moon when it hit on top another crater:

Messier A crater, located in Mare Fecunditatis, presents an interesting puzzle. The main crater is beautifully preserved, with a solidified pond of impact melt resting in its floor. But there is another impact crater beneath and just to the west of Messier A. This more subdued and degraded impact crater clearly formed first.

Solar System

** BepiColombo made a return fly-by of Earth on April 10th to boost its trip to Mercury. The European/Japanese spacecraft sent images it made of Earth during the return.

Launched in 2018, BepiColombo is on a seven-year journey to the smallest and innermost planet orbiting the Sun, which holds important clues about the formation and evolution of the entire Solar System.

Today’s operation is the first of nine flybys which, together with the onboard solar propulsion system, will help the spacecraft reach its target orbit around Mercury. The next two flybys will take place at Venus and further six at Mercury itself.

While the manoeuvre took advantage of Earth’s gravity to adjust the path of the spacecraft and did not require any active operations, such as firing thrusters, it included 34 critical minutes shortly after BepiColombo’s closest approach to our planet, when the spacecraft flew across the shadow of Earth.

** Asteroids and Comets

** OSIRIS-REx practices collecting a sample of the surface of the asteroid Bennu. One Step Closer to Touching Asteroid Bennu – OSIRIS-REx Mission. On April 14th,

…NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft performed the first practice run of its sample collection sequence, reaching an approximate altitude of 246 feet (75 meters) over site Nightingale before executing a back-away burn from the asteroid. Nightingale, OSIRIS-REx’s primary sample collection site, is located within a crater in Bennu’s northern hemisphere.

The four-hour Checkpoint rehearsal took the spacecraft through the first two of the sampling sequence’s four maneuvers: the orbit departure burn and the Checkpoint burn. Checkpoint is so named because it is the location where the spacecraft autonomously checks its position and velocity before adjusting its trajectory down toward the location of the event’s third maneuver.

Four hours after departing its 0.6-mile (1-km) safe-home orbit, the spacecraft performed the Checkpoint maneuver at an approximate altitude of 410 feet (125 meters) above Bennu’s surface. From there, the spacecraft continued to descend for another nine minutes on a trajectory toward – but not reaching – the location of the sampling event’s third maneuver, the “Matchpoint” burn. Upon reaching an altitude of approximately 246 ft (75 m) – the closest the spacecraft has ever been to Bennu – OSIRIS-REx performed a back-away burn to complete the rehearsal.

During the rehearsal, the spacecraft successfully deployed its sampling arm, the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM), from its folded, parked position out to the sample collection configuration. Additionally, some of the spacecraft’s instruments collected science and navigation images and made spectrometry observations of the sample site, as will occur during the sample collection event.

“This artist’s concept shows the trajectory and configuration of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft during Checkpoint rehearsal, which was the first time the mission practiced the initial steps of collecting a sample from asteroid Bennu.” Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

** A high-res global map of Bennu using images taken by OSIRIS-REx was released in February:

A global map of asteroid Bennu’s surface created with a mosaic of images taken by OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. Credits: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona.

** Hotel Mars/The Space Show – Wed, 04/15/2020John Batchelor and David Livingston spoke with Dr. Harold C. Connolly about “Asteroid sample return missions and more for both Bennu and Ryugu and their missions, OSIRIS-REx as well as the Japanese mission, Hayabusa2.”

** Avoiding an asteroid impact catastrophe: A presentation to a general audience by researchers at Lawrence Livermore Lab on Planetary Defense: Avoiding a Cosmic Catastrophe

Our planet has been continually bombarded by asteroids since its formation, 4.5 billion years ago. While the frequency of large impacts has decreased, many potential Near-Earth Object threats remain undiscovered, so if or when they will impact Earth remains unknown. Fortunately, if an Earth-threatening asteroid is discovered in time, there are ways to mitigate or even prevent a disaster. Scientists at LLNL provide computer simulations in preparation these scenarios so if the time comes where an asteroid is headed our way, we will be prepared.

** Hopes for Comet Atlas  to be visible to the naked eye were dashed when it began to break up:

Senior Planetary Astronomer Franck Marchis takes a closer look at Comet Atlas. Discovered by the Atlas Survey in December 2019 it has recently been observed exhibiting unusual behavior. What is happening?

Another comet was recently spotted, though, and it might succeed in brightening enough to be seen without a telescope: Introducing Comet Swain –


** Rocky earth-class sized exoplanet discovered: Earth-Size, Habitable-Zone Planet Found Hidden in Early NASA Kepler Data – NASA JPL

A team of transatlantic scientists, using reanalyzed data from NASA’s Kepler space telescope, has discovered an Earth-size exoplanet orbiting in its star’s habitable zone, the area around a star where a rocky planet could support liquid water.

Scientists discovered this planet, called Kepler-1649c, when looking through old observations from Kepler, which the agency retired in 2018. While previous searches with a computer algorithm misidentified it, researchers reviewing Kepler data took a second look at the signature and recognized it as a planet. Out of all the exoplanets found by Kepler, this distant world – located 300 light-years from Earth – is most similar to Earth in size and estimated temperature.

This newly revealed world is only 1.06 times larger than our own planet. Also, the amount of starlight it receives from its host star is 75% of the amount of light Earth receives from our Sun – meaning the exoplanet’s temperature may be similar to our planet’s as well. But unlike Earth, it orbits a red dwarf. Though none have been observed in this system, this type of star is known for stellar flare-ups that may make a planet’s environment challenging for any potential life.

“This intriguing, distant world gives us even greater hope that a second Earth lies among the stars, waiting to be found,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “The data gathered by missions like Kepler and our Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite [TESS] will continue to yield amazing discoveries as the science community refines its abilities to look for promising planets year after year.”

Comparison of Earth to an artist’s rendering of Kepler 1649c. Credits: NASA/Ames Research Center/Daniel Rutter

A discussion at the SETI Institute about Kepler 1649c:

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