Category Archives: Space Science

Videos: TMRO Orbit 12.04 – “A possible goodby to the Opportunity Rover”

The latest episode of the TMRO.tv space show is now available: A possible goodbye to the Opportunity Rover – Orbit 12.04

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.

A TMRO Science program was also webcast: Breaking down ocean waste with bioremediation – Discovery 02.01

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.

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Galaxy Girls: 50 Amazing Stories of Women in Space.

Space science: Deep water on Mars, Rovers update, & Juno mission midway

A sampling of planetary science news:

** Yet more Mars water: A new study finds evidence for a deep groundwater table on Mars: Well water likely available across Mars | Behind The Black

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.

Diagram of surface feature evidence for a deep ground water table

** Curiosity on the move:  The Curiosity rover continues its long slow methodical trek up Mount Sharp – Curiosity Says Farewell to Mars’ Vera Rubin Ridge | NASA

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.

A selfie taken by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover on Sol 2291 (January 15) at the “Rock Hall” drill site, located on Vera Rubin Ridge. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS Full image and caption

** Last hope for Opportunity: NASA JPL will try some new techniques in hopes of awakening the long silent Opportunity rover – Rover Team Beaming New Commands to Opportunity on Mars – NASA JPL

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.

** Juno midway in Jupiter mission: The Juno spacecraft in December completed its 16th orbit of Jupiter, halfway to the 32 orbit target to complete its primary mission – NASA’s Juno Mission Halfway to Jupiter Science | NASA

“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.”

** A sampling of recent images from Juno:

**** Juno’s SRU Captures Jupiter Lightning

Juno’s Radiation Monitoring Investigation used the Stellar Reference Unit (SRU) star camera to collect this high-resolution image Jupiter’s northern auroral oval on May 24, 2018 (Perijove 13). Also present in the image are several small bright dots and streaks — signatures of high energy relativistic electrons from polar beams that are penetrating the camera. The large bright dot in the lower right corner of the image is a flash of Jupiter’s lightning. Juno was less than 37,000 miles (60,000 km) from the cloud tops when this SRU image was collected — the closest view of Jupiter’s aurora with a visible light imager.

**** Juno’s Latest Flyby of Jupiter Captures Two Massive Storms

“This image of Jupiter’s turbulent southern hemisphere was captured by NASA’s Juno spacecraft as it performed its most recent close flyby of the gas giant planet on Dec. 21, 2018. This new perspective captures the notable Great Red Spot, as well as a massive storm called Oval BA. The storm reached its current size when three smaller spots collided and merged in the year 2000. The Great Red Spot, which is about twice as wide as Oval BA, may have formed from the same process centuries ago.” – NASA JPL

**** PJ12-83 – Jupiter during Perijove 17

Jupiter during Juno 17th orbit. Credits: Kevin M. Gill at Junocam public image processing gallery
**** Jupiter at home in the Milky Way

“Jupiter at Home in the Milky Way” – Credits: CosmEffect at  Junocam public image processing gallery
See also

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Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto

New Horizons: Sharpest image yet of Ultima Thule

The latest images of the Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule from New Horizons at JHU/APL:

New Horizons’ Newest and Best-Yet View of Ultima Thule

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.

Ultima Thule. Release Date: January 24, 2019. Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

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.

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Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto

Space Science: Planetary rover update, Martian slope streaks, Lunar eclipse flash

Some space science items of interest:

** Planetary rover update: January 22, 2019 | Behind The Black – Bob Zimmerman reports on the status and plans for the Mars rovers and the Chinese Yutu-2 rover on the Moon.

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.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) image “Monitor Region Near Curiosity Rover” annotated by Robert Zimmerman at www.behindtheblack.com

** Planetary Scientists Continue to Puzzle Over the Mysterious Slope Streaks on Mars. Liquid? Sand? What’s Causing Them? – Universe Today – Investigations into what causes the long streaks down the sides of hill and mountain slopes on Mars.

“A splitting slope streak on Mars captured by HiRISE”. Credit NASA JPL,University of Arizona via Universe Today

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.

Scott Manley discusses the impact:

More at:

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.

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Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto

Chang’e-4 in sleep mode, Videos of rover and the landing, + Cotton shoots sprout

[ 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:

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China’s Chang’e-4 mission on the far side of the Moon has begun initial operations with the scientific instruments on board the lander and has taken a short drive of the rover Yutu-2 (Jade Rabbit-2):

An earlier video showing the deployment of the rover:

A press conference was held this week with managers of the Chinese space program, including “Sun Zezhou, chief designer of the Chang’e-4 probe”. They discussed the challenges of operating the systems in the lunar environment: China’s new lunar rover faces challenges on moon’s far side – Xinhua | English.news.cn

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.

The scientific experiments on board the lander include a mini-biosphere to demonstrate growing plants on the Moon. A cotton-seed quickly sprouted: China Focus: Moon sees first cotton-seed sprout – Xinhua | English.news.cn

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.

A photo of the shoots: China’s plants sprout on moon’s far side – Chinadaily.com.cn

“At 8 pm on Jan 12, Chang’e 4 sends back the last photo of the bio test load showing that tender shoots have come out and the plants are growing well inside the sealed test can. It is the first time humans conducted a biological growth and cultivation experiment on the surface of the moon.” – Chongqing University and ChinaDaily.

The plant experiment, however, was a brief one. The seeds will not survive the night-time temperatures.

This sort of research from Chang’e-4 will provide data in support of Chinese human missions later:

A sample return mission – Chang’e-5 – is the next Moon mission on the agenda: China’s lunar exploration program to meet goal of sample returning by 2020: official – CCTVPLUS

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.

More reports on Chang’e-5:

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Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto