While the Opportunity rover isn’t officially dead yet, at this point engineers seem to be struggling to get communications restored. It’s possible there could be a eureka moment, but for now Oppy remains silent. We chat about our favorite Opportunity Science, Moments and even enjoy the launch itself.
This week we also chat about Stratolaunch history and Future (by way of community vote), Blue Origin Test Flights and Onboard Science and the recent higher-resolution picture of Ultima Thule from New Horizons.
Space news is now presented by TMRO in a separate video:
This is your space news update for January 30th, 2019. Our Space Mike hologram is back, in non hologram form this week to deliver Launch Minute as well as an update on the SpaceX DM-1 mission. We also chat about the recent Blue Origin Test Flight and the ground breaking for their new engine production facility. OneWeb may have access to a lower cost ground based system for their upcoming satellite constellation. And finally, a quick update on NASA’s Opportunity Rover.
Dr. Rose Jones of Bigelow Lab for Ocean Sciences joins us on TMRO.Science to talk about Deep-sea microbial communities, extremophiles and bioremediation of acid mine drainage sites. How these systems all interact and can be used to help break down ocean waste.
A science paper released today and available for download [pdf] cites evidence from about two dozen deep impact craters located from the equator to 37 degrees north latitude that Mars has a ground ice table at an elevation that also corresponds to other shoreline features.
The third take-away from this paper however is possibly the most important. The evidence suggests that this deep groundwater water table (as ice) almost certainly still exists at all latitudes, though almost entirely underground. From a future explorer’s perspective, this data reinforces the possibility that water will be accessible across much of the Martian surface. All you will have to do is dig a well, something humans have been doing on Earth for eons.
NASA’s Curiosity rover has taken its last selfie on Vera Rubin Ridge and descended toward a clay region of Mount Sharp. The twisting ridge on Mars has been the rover’s home for more than a year, providing scientists with new samples — and new questions — to puzzle over.
On Dec. 15, Curiosity drilled its 19th sample at a location on the ridge called Rock Hall. On Jan. 15, the spacecraft used its Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera on the end of its robotic arm to take a series of 57 pictures, which were stitched together into this selfie. The “Rock Hall” drill hole is visible to the lower left of the rover; the scene is dustier than usual at this time of year due to a regional dust storm.
Curiosity has been exploring the ridge since September of 2017. It’s now headed into the “clay-bearing unit,” which sits in a trough just south of the ridge. Clay minerals in this unit may hold more clues about the ancient lakes that helped form the lower levels on Mount Sharp.
Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, have begun transmitting a new set of commands to the Opportunity rover in an attempt to compel the 15-year-old Martian explorer to contact Earth. The new commands, which will be beamed to the rover during the next several weeks, address low-likelihood events that could have occurred aboard Opportunity, preventing it from transmitting.
The rover’s last communication with Earth was received June 10, 2018, as a planet-wide dust storm blanketed the solar-powered rover’s location on Mars.
“We have and will continue to use multiple techniques in our attempts to contact the rover,” said John Callas, project manager for Opportunity at JPL. “These new command strategies are in addition to the ‘sweep and beep’ commands we have been transmitting up to the rover since September.” With “sweep and beep,” instead of just listening for Opportunity, the project sends commands to the rover to respond back with a beep.
“With our 16th science flyby, we will have complete global coverage of Jupiter, albeit at coarse resolution, with polar passes separated by 22.5 degrees of longitude,” said Jack Connerney, Juno deputy principal investigator from the Space Research Corporation in Annapolis, Maryland. “Over the second half of our prime mission — science flybys 17 through 32 — we will split the difference, flying exactly halfway between each previous orbit. This will provide coverage of the planet every 11.25 degrees of longitude, providing a more detailed picture of what makes the whole of Jupiter tick.”
Launched on Aug. 5, 2011, from Cape Canaveral, Florida, the spacecraft entered orbit around Jupiter on July 4, 2016. Its science collection began in earnest on the Aug. 27, 2016, flyby. During these flybys, Juno’s suite of sensitive science instruments probes beneath the planet’s obscuring cloud cover and studies Jupiter’s auroras to learn more about the planet’s origins, interior structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere.
“We have already rewritten the textbooks on how Jupiter’s atmosphere works, and on the complexity and asymmetry of its magnetic field,” said Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno, from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “The second half should provide the detail that we can use to refine our understanding of the depth of Jupiter’s zonal winds, the generation of its magnetic field, and the structure and evolution of its interior.”
The wonders – and mysteries – of Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69 continue to multiply as NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft beams home new images of its New Year’s Day 2019 flyby target.
This image, taken during the historic Jan. 1 flyby of what’s informally known as Ultima Thule, is the clearest view yet of this remarkable, ancient object in the far reaches of the solar system – and the first small “KBO” ever explored by a spacecraft.
Obtained with the wide-angle Multicolor Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) component of New Horizons’ Ralph instrument, this image was taken when the KBO was 4,200 miles (6,700 kilometers) from the spacecraft, at 05:26 UT (12:26 a.m. EST) on Jan. 1 – just seven minutes before closest approach. With an original resolution of 440 feet (135 meters) per pixel, the image was stored in the spacecraft’s data memory and transmitted to Earth on Jan. 18-19. Scientists then sharpened the image to enhance fine detail. (This process – known as deconvolution – also amplifies the graininess of the image when viewed at high contrast.)
The oblique lighting of this image reveals new topographic details along the day/night boundary, or terminator, near the top. These details include numerous small pits up to about 0.4 miles (0.7 kilometers) in diameter. The large circular feature, about 4 miles (7 kilometers) across, on the smaller of the two lobes, also appears to be a deep depression. Not clear is whether these pits are impact craters or features resulting from other processes, such as “collapse pits” or the ancient venting of volatile materials.
Both lobes also show many intriguing light and dark patterns of unknown origin, which may reveal clues about how this body was assembled during the formation of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago. One of the most striking of these is the bright “collar” separating the two lobes.
“This new image is starting to reveal differences in the geologic character of the two lobes of Ultima Thule, and is presenting us with new mysteries as well,” said Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “Over the next month there will be better color and better resolution images that we hope will help unravel the many mysteries of Ultima Thule.”
New Horizons is approximately 4.13 billion miles (6.64 billion kilometers) from Earth, operating normally and speeding away from the Sun (and Ultima Thule) at more than 31,500 miles (50,700 kilometers) per hour. At that distance, a radio signal reaches Earth six hours and nine minutes after leaving the spacecraft.
Since November Curiosity has remained on the top of Vera Rubin Ridge, where it drilled its third successful hole there, out of a total of six drilling attempts. The failures were partly because of the hardness of the rock on the ridge, and partly because they are using a new drilling technique because of the failure of the drill’s feed mechanism. Instead of having the feed mechanism push the drill down into the rock, they use the robot arm itself. This has required care because the last thing they want to do is damage the arm itself.
The image [below] shows where Curiosity is heading in next year or two and was discussed in detail in my December 19, 2018 post, Curiosity’s future travels.
Since they were first observed in the 1970s by the Viking missions, the slope streaks that periodically appear along slopes on Mars have continued to intrigue scientists. After years of study, scientists still aren’t sure exactly what causes them. While some believe that “wet” mechanisms are the culprit, others think they are the result of “dry” mechanisms.
Luckily, improvements in high-resolution sensors and imaging capabilities – as well as improved understanding of Mars’ seasonal cycles – is bringing us closer to an answer. Using a terrestrial analog from Bolivia, a research team from Sweden recently conducted a study that explored the mechanisms for streak formation and suggest that wet mechanisms appear to account for more, which could have serious implications for future missions to Mars.
** Lunar impact flash observed during eclipse – During the lunar “Blood Moon” eclipse on January 21st, a meteoroid impact was observed as seen in this video:
These images correspond to a lunar impact flash spotted by the telescopes operating in the framework of the MIDAS survey on Jan. 21, at 4:41:38 universal time (23:41:38 US eastern time). The impact took place during the totality phase of the lunar eclipse. The flash was produced by a rock (a meteoroid) that hit the lunar ground. The MIDAS Survey is being conducted by the University of Huelva and the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia.
Meteoroids hit the Moon all the time. Literally. NASA has been observing the impact flashes since 2005. Recently, other groups in Europe have joined the hunt. Flashes are typically observed once every 2 or 3 hours of observing time. Impactors range in size from softballs to boulders, liberating energies equal to tons of TNT when they strike.
The rare thing about this strike is that it was photographed during a full Moon, when lunar glare usually overwhelms the glow of any fireball. During the eclipse, Earth’s shadow turned lunar day into almost-night for an hour, allowing the fireball to be seen.
[ Update Jan.16.2019: There has been some confusion about the photos of the cotton plant shoots. A couple of early images circulating in the Chinese press were actually from a ground unit. However, the one shown below is apparently from the lander:
Both the lander and the rover entered a “sleep mode” on Sunday as the first lunar night after the probe’s landing fell, according to Wu.
One night on the moon lasts about 14 days on the earth, during which the temperature falls as low as minus 180 degrees centigrade. There is no sunlight to provide power to the probe, which will survive the night with its thermal control system with a radioisotope heat source.
The landing went quite smoothly:
Sun told reporters that the Chang’e-4 probe had achieved the expected landing precision. The telemetry information and images taken by the probe showed that the spacecraft effectively avoided obstacles during its descent.
“It hovered at around 100 meters above the lunar surface and moved about 8 meters towards the southwestern direction. After its landing, we discovered large craters with a diameter of more than 10 meters on both the southern and northern sides of the probe, and it successfully avoided them,” Sun said.
Scott Manley analyzes the landing video:
I took the best video from an official source, then corrected it for real time, interpolated frames to smooth it using butterflow. Then using the high quality video I try to map through all the features we see to provide an idea of how large the craters are.
Professor Xie Gengxin, of Chongqing University and chief designer of the experiment, said a canister installed on the lander of the Chang’e-4 probe contained the seeds of cotton, rapeseed, potato and Arabidopsis, as well as eggs of the fruit fly and some yeast, to form a simple mini biosphere.
Images sent by the probe showed that a cotton sprout had started to grow, though no other plants were found growing.
The Chang’e-5 probe will be launched by the end of this year and will collect two kg of samples and bring them back to Earth. China plans to launch a probe in 2020 that will orbit, land and rove on Mars the following year, according to Wu.