A sampling of recent articles, videos, and images from space-related science news items (find previous roundups here):
** 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.
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.
** 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:
- Map of Every Mars Landing Attempt, Ever – Emily Lakdawalla/The Planetary Society
- Every Mars Landing Attempt, Ever – The Planetary Society
- Map of Mars Landings: Successes and Failures – Planetary Society (png)
** 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
- Mars “Mole” Experiment: Good News! – Leonard David
- A new use for InSight’s robotic arm – The Space Review
- The InSight mission logbook – DLR
** Leonard David also describes Curiosity’s rovings:
- Curiosity Mars Rover: 14.0 Mile Mark Reached
- Curiosity Mars Rover: Patch Work
- Curiosity Mars Rover: New Road Map, Images
- Curiosity Mars Rover: Long Drive Ahead
- Curiosity Mars Rover: Finishing up at “Glasgow”
- Curiosity Mars Rover: Memorial Day Duties
- Curiosity Mars Rover: Scenic Shots
** Tour more sites on the marvelous Martian surface with Bob Zimmerman
- Enigmatic layering and chasms on Mars
- Isidis Basin, on whose margin Perseverance will roam
- Fading Martian slope streaks
- An exposed dry waterfall on Mars
- The strange squashed ridges at the basement of Mars
- Thar’s ice in them Martian hills!
- A Martian crater with a straight edge
- Weird central peak in Martian crater
- Amazing layers
- More pits found on Mars
** 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.
** 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.
** 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.
** 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.
- China’s Chang’e 4 moon rover mission is back in action on lunar farside | Space.com
- Chang’e 4 lander and “Yutu 2” lunar rover awakened autonomously, entering the nineteenth day of the week – CLEP (Google translation)
- Chang’e-4 returns new images of the lunar surface – ecns.cn
** 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?
** 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
- How Europe’s CHEOPS Satellite Will Improve The Hunt For Exoplanets – SpaceWatch.Global
- CHEOPS space telescope ready for scientific operation – CHEOPS
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.