Archive for July, 2016

Credit: Viking Mars Missions Education & Preservation Project (VMMEPP).

Credit: Viking Mars Missions Education & Preservation Project (VMMEPP).

Four decades ago, NASA’s Viking Mars program scored nail-biting, back-to-back successes by becoming the first U.S. robotic missions to land safe and sound on the Red Planet and return images of the Martian landscape.

It was a momentous moment in time.

Like today’s robotic explorers, but decades ago, Viking scientists packed up their troubles, cares and woes to ask: Is there life on Mars?

NASA's two Viking landers were designed and built by Martin Marietta (now Lockheed Martin) at its facility near Denver. This image shows some Martin Marietta employees in a Viking lander test center. Credit: Lockheed Martin

NASA’s two Viking landers were designed and built by Martin Marietta (now Lockheed Martin) at its facility near Denver. This image shows some Martin Marietta employees in a Viking lander test center.
Credit: Lockheed Martin

 

Twins to Mars

Twin spacecraft missions — each consisting of a lander and an orbiter – made their way to Mars and into the history books.

The Viking 1 lander stretched its legs down into the terrain of Chryse Planitia on July 20, 1976, with the Viking 2 lander touching down months later at Utopia Planitia on September 3.

Veterans of Viking: July 16 event at the Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum in Denver, Colorado, organized by the Viking Mars Missions Education & Preservation Project and sponsored by Lockheed Martin in partnership with The Space Foundation and the museum. Credit: Barbara David

Veterans of Viking: July 16 event at the Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum in Denver, Colorado, organized by the Viking Mars Missions Education & Preservation Project and sponsored by Lockheed Martin in partnership with The Space Foundation and the museum.
Credit: Barbara David

Personal sagas

Viking-era scientists, engineers and former student interns recently joined together in a special salute to the past and share personal sagas about their daring, individual encounters with the Red Planet.

The first photo from the surface of Mars shows one of the Viking 1 lander’s footpads. Credit: NASA/JPL

The first photo from the surface of Mars shows one of the Viking 1 lander’s footpads.
Credit: NASA/JPL

 

 

 

 

 

To read the full story, go to my new Space.com story:

Viking on Mars, 40 Years Later: Reflections on Pioneering the Red Planet

www.space.com/33481-viking-mars-landing-40-years-anniversary.html

USAF Gen. John Hyten, the head of Air Force Space Command, at 31st National Space Symposium held in Colorado Springs. Credit: The Space Foundation

USAF Gen. John Hyten, the head of Air Force Space Command, at 31st National Space Symposium held in Colorado Springs.
Credit: The Space Foundation

 

More details have been issued by the U.S. Air Force on a Space Mission Force or SMF.

The objective is to prepare and present space forces as a ready force capable of operating in a “contested, degraded and operationally-limited environment.”

According to the Air Force in a press statement, the SMF “will be the new standard for space operators to increase preparedness to operate their weapon systems and respond to the increasing threats to those same systems.”

Ready spacecrew

An SMF White Paper, dated June 29th, has been authored by General John E. Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command. “The Space Mission Force construct is really quite simple; we are revamping our crews to respond appropriately to threats in a dynamic environment,” he said.

One key element of the SMF is that it establishes the Ready Spacecrew Program.

That initiative enhances training to create a force capable of performing combatant commander-directed missions in the face of dynamic and varied threats.

“The Ready Spacecrew Program will maintain foundational skills and, more importantly, will build new skills and emphasize innovation, decision making at the lowest levels and development and use of tactics to counter space threats,” notes the Air Force statement.

Artist's view of the Missile Defense Agency's Space Tracking and Surveillance System-Demonstrator (STSS-D) spacecraft tracking objects in space. Photo credit: Northrop Grumman Corporation

Artist’s view of the Missile Defense Agency’s Space Tracking and Surveillance System-Demonstrator (STSS-D) spacecraft tracking objects in space.
Photo credit: Northrop Grumman Corporation

No longer a sanctuary

The 50th Space Wing was the first wing to implement the Space Mission Force construct and begin rotations, which started on Feb. 1, 2016.

The 21st Space Wing implemented SMF on July 1, 2016 and the 460th Space Wing will transition to the SMF construct next year.

“Space as a global commons is vital to commerce and is an essential element of Joint Warfare and global stability,” Hyten explains in the White Paper. “Space is no longer a sanctuary where the United States or our allies and partners operate with impunity.”

In the White Paper, Hyten adds that the United States faces current and future challenges in space that demand an immediate change in how we organize, train, equip and employ our forces.

“Our Nation and our Air Force demand the presentation of expertly trained and professionally led spacecrews, capable of accomplishing their missions under combat conditions. I expect nothing less,” the general concludes in the White Paper.

For a copy of the SMF White Paper, go to:

http://www.airforcemag.com/DRArchive/Documents/2016/July%202016/Space%20Mission%20Force%20White%20Paper.pdf

Curiosity Mastcam Left image taken on Sol 1400, July 14, 2016 Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Curiosity Mastcam Left image taken on Sol 1400, July 14, 2016
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

 

NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars is now in Sol 1402 activities, a weekend plan of duties ahead defined at “hefty.”

According to Lauren Edgar, a research geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona, “we knew it would be a big plan going into the weekend.”

The plan jelled as it was confirmed that the rover’s drive of roughly 85 feet (26 meters) went well.

Curiosity Mastcam Right image taken on Sol 1400, July 14, 2016. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Curiosity Mastcam Right image taken on Sol 1400, July 14, 2016.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Bedrock observations

On Sol 1401, the first task by Mars researchers was to evaluate the local bedrock and select a target for contact science.

Science teams selected a target named “Uku” for Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam), Mastcam, Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) and Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) activities to assess the texture and composition of the Murray formation, Edgar adds. “We also planned a ChemCam observation on the target “Songo,” a disturbed block which looks more red than some of the surrounding rocks.”

The plan also includes some Mastcam mosaics of the “Bimbe” blocky deposit to see if researchers want to pursue some additional observations there next week.

Curiosity Mastcam Left image taken on Sol 1400, July 14, 2016. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Curiosity Mastcam Left image taken on Sol 1400, July 14, 2016.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Working with MAVEN

In unwrapping weekend plans, Edgar reports in the first and third sols some environmental monitoring observations are to be coordinated with observations from NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft. It has been orbiting Mars since September 2014.

“This will give us a great dataset from the ground looking up, and from orbit looking down,” Edgar notes.

Artist concept of NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Teamed up with Curiosity, NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission.
Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Power-hungry plan

Also in the weekend plan is MAHLI imaging of the Chemistry & Mineralogy X-Ray Diffraction/X-Ray Fluorescence Instrument inlet, as well as a Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) Instrument Suite geochronology experiment.

“Not surprisingly, this is a very power-hungry plan,” Edgar says. “But we managed to get almost everything into the plan, and have set ourselves up for the possibility of more contact science on Monday. Should be a fun weekend in Gale crater!”

As always, dates of planned rover activities are subject to change due to a variety of factors related to the Martian environment, communication relays and rover status.

Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech

Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech

The building of NASA’s next Mars rover has been given a go-ahead. Launch of the Mars machinery is targeted for the summer of 2020, arriving on the Red Planet in February of 2021.

In the hope of reducing risk and shaving off dollars, the 2020 rover would look much like its six-wheeled, one-ton predecessor, Curiosity, now prowling across the surface of the Red Planet.

But there are differences.

New icomputer generated image of Mars 2020. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech

New computer generated image of Mars 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech

 

Now hear this

The rover will carry an array of new science instruments and enhancements to explore Mars as never before – including microphones. The Mars 2020 rover will record sounds during the vehicle’s descent to the surface, and also after the landing.

Where to land the NASA Mars 2020 rover? Scientists and engineers gathered at an August workshop to assess where best to land the Red Planet robot. Credit: NASA/JPL

Where to land the NASA Mars 2020 rover? Scientists and engineers are assessing where best to land the Red Planet robot.
Credit: NASA/JPL

As was the case for getting the Curiosity rover down safe and sound, the 2020 rover will use the same “sky crane” landing system. Yes, another seven minutes of terror!

But thanks to the microphones, along with a suite of cameras, never-before-seen imagery and sounds will be captured of the entry, descent and landing (EDL) sequence.

Viewed as a public outreach tool, a microphone should hear the rover’s aluminum wheels rolling over rocks. The device should also prove useful in providing engineering information to ground controllers back on Earth.

One leading landing site - Jezero. Credit: Mars Landing Site Steering Committee/T. Goudge, et al.

One leading landing site – Jezero Crater paleolake.
Credit: Mars Landing Site Steering Committee/T. Goudge, et al.

 

 

Targeted landing zone

The Mars 2020 rover mission will have the ability to land in more challenging terrain thanks to two enhancements:

  • A “range trigger” for timing of parachute opening; and
  • Terrain-relative navigation that uses onboard analysis of downward-looking images taken during descent, matching them to a map that indicates zones designated unsafe for landing.

These capabilities should lead to shrinking any targeted landing zone by nearly half. Also, the rover can plop down closer to a specific science destination, adding up to less driving after landing.

NASA’s Mars 2020 rover is to seek signs of past life on Mars, collect and store a set of soil and rock samples that could be returned to Earth in the future. Shown here is an artistic representation of the robot’s SuperCam instrument during operation. Credit: NASA

NASA’s Mars 2020 rover is to seek signs of past life on Mars, collect and store a set of soil and rock samples that could be returned to Earth in the future. Shown here is an artistic representation of the robot’s SuperCam instrument during operation.
Credit: NASA

Sample collection

The Mars 2020 rover mission is designed to look for signs of past life in a region of Mars where the ancient environment was favorable for microbial life.

A unique task is for the robot to collect samples of Martian rock and soil, cache those specimens for pick-up and delivery back to Earth by a potential future mission.

Martian rocks and soil are to be sampled using a coring drill on the rover’s robotic arm. Samples are to be deposited into a rack of sample tubes. Once the samples have been hermetically sealed, about 30 of the tubes will be deposited on the ground at select locations as returnable caches for a possible future sample-retrieval mission.

Rover MOXIE

Also on tap is a first investigation on Mars into use of Martian resources to meet the needs of future human expeditions to the Red Planet.

Credit: NASA/JPL/MIT

Credit: NASA/JPL/MIT

That device is called the Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment or MOXIE for short.

MOXIE will extract oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, which is mostly carbon dioxide. Oxygen could serve in propulsion for a crew’s trip home, as well as for breathing.

MOXIE collects CO2 from the Martian atmosphere, compresses and stores it, then electrochemically splits the CO2 molecules into O2 and CO. The O2 is then analyzed for purity before being vented back out to the Mars atmosphere along with the CO and other exhaust products.

Human working with robot on Mars. Credit: NASA

Human working with robot on Mars.
Credit: NASA

 

Sub-surface radar

The intent is that MOXIE will demonstrate an In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) technology to enable propellant and consumable oxygen production from the Martian atmosphere, and also characterize atmospheric dust size and morphology to understand its effects on the operation of surface systems.

Another rover-toting technology that’s unique is use of ground-penetrating radar to assess sub-surface geologic structure – perhaps pockets of ice. That resource is expected to be essential in the future to help sustain expeditionary crews on Mars.

To relive seven minutes of terror that Curiosity and the Mars 2020 mission will endure, go to:

http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/video/details.php?id=1090

Curiosity Mastcam Left image taken on Sol 1398, July 12, 2016. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Curiosity Mastcam Left image taken on Sol 1398, July 12, 2016.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

 

Now in Sol 1400, NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover recently drove roughly 105 feet (32 meters) closer to a blocky deposit known as “Bimbe.”

We’ve identified several notable blocky deposits in orbital images, and this will be our last chance to fully investigate one of these deposits on the ground to try to determine their origin,” explains Lauren Edgar, a research geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona and a member of the Mars Science Laboratory science team.

Curiosity Left B Navigation Camera image taken on Sol 1400, July 14, 2016. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Curiosity Left B Navigation Camera image taken on Sol 1400, July 14, 2016.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

 

 

 

 

Laminations in bedrock

The current plan involves taking Mastcam mosaics to characterize laminations in the Murray bedrock, and to document the “Bimbe” region.

Also planned is a study of a target named “Auchab” using the rover’s Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam).

Additionally, a morning science block is to include some systematic atmospheric monitoring with the robot’s Mastcam.

Curiosity Rover’s location for Sol 1399. Base image from the map is from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment Camera (HiRISE) in NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Curiosity Rover’s location for Sol 1399. Base image from the map is from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment Camera (HiRISE) in NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

 

 

 

New map

Meanwhile, a new map depicts Curiosity’s location for Sol 1399.

The map shows the route driven by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity through the 1399 Martian day, or sol, of the rover’s mission on Mars (July, 13, 2016).

Numbering of the dots along the line indicate the sol number of each drive. North is up.

From Sol 1398 to Sol 1399, Curiosity had driven a straight line distance of about 101.92 feet (31.06 meters).

Since touching down in Bradbury Landing in August 2012, Curiosity has driven 8.28 miles (13.33 kilometers).

ISS-4

 

At yesterday’s Senate hearing, NASA’s William H. Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator of Human Exploration and Operations, made note of a new Request for Information (RFI) to further the idea of private sector use of the International Space Station.

Wanted: industry ideas

That RFI is called:

Advancing Economic Development in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) via Commercial Use of Limited Availability, Unique International Space Station Capabilities

NASA is seeking industry ideas to stimulate economic development through the use of unique ISS capabilities such as unused common berthing mechanism (CBM) attachment ports, non-standard attachment sites or any other capability which can be used in a way not previously envisioned. NASA is also interested in operating approaches.

The RFI can be found here:

https://www.fbo.gov/notices/203c8f1a3a4f0497cdea6dbf205ee2b1

 

Test bedding economic strength of low Earth orbit, the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

Test bedding economic strength of low Earth orbit, the International Space Station.
Credit: NASA

NASA has issued an informative new report titled the Economic Development of Low Earth Orbit.

The document is edited by Patrick Besha, Editor, Senior Policy Advisor, NASA and Alexander MacDonald, Editor, Senior Economic Advisor, NASA.

This wide-ranging collection of papers ranges from “Selecting Policy Tools to Expand NASA’s Contribution to Technology Commercialization” and “Protein Crystallization for Drug Development: A Prospective Empirical Appraisal of Economic Effects of ISS Microgravity” to “Venture Capital Activity in the Low-Earth Orbit Sector” and “Directing vs. Facilitating the Economic Development of Low Earth Orbit.”

Space entrepreneur, Robert Bigelow, explains his expansive plans for space. Credit: Space Foundation

Space entrepreneur, Robert Bigelow, explains his expansive plans for space.
Credit: Space Foundation

Viable, sustainable economy

According to the editors, in order for a viable, sustainable economy based on human spaceflight to emerge in low Earth orbit (LEO), a number of elements must be present, such as:

  • The marketplace dynamics of supply and demand must exist.
  • The overwhelming reliance on government demand and public procurement must be transitioned to a market in which industry and other private sector demand is the primary market force, met by industry supply.
Blue Origin's New Shepard booster takes flight. Credit: Blue Origin

Blue Origin’s New Shepard booster takes flight.
Credit: Blue Origin

 

Great experiment

That transition from government-led to private sector–led human spaceflight activity in LEO will constitute “a great experiment” in the development of American spaceflight capabilities,” and the careful management of the dynamics of this transition will be of paramount importance,” suggest the editors.

“This collection of papers,” explains Besha and MacDonald, “identifies a number of important policy questions that will be of rising importance as NASA transitions human spaceflight in LEO to the private sector, as well as a number of economic analysis methods for addressing those questions.”

To take a look at this new document, the Economic Development of Low Earth Orbit, go to:

https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/atoms/files/economic-development-of-low-earth-orbit_tagged_v2.pdf

Credit: NASA

Credit: NASA

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), chairman of the Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness, convened a subcommittee hearing today titled “NASA at a Crossroads: Reasserting American Leadership in Space Exploration.”

The hearing asked witnesses to focus on the importance of ensuring consistency in policy to best leverage investments made in human space exploration.

Also, the hearing was intending to explore questions facing NASA related to the upcoming presidential transition.

Credit: NASA

Credit: NASA

Here’s is testimony given today:

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson Opening Statement

Good afternoon, and thank you, Senator Cruz, for calling this hearing. I greatly appreciate our coming together to work toward a bill that will keep NASA moving forward in an exciting and productive manner.

It’s notable that July 20th, one week from today, marks the 40th anniversary of the first landing on Mars by NASA’s Viking 1. And the legacy of that mission, and subsequent missions to the Red Planet, is that we now know that Mars was once warm and wet and may very well have supported life. There’s even evidence of flowing water at the surface of Mars today.

In 2010, we passed a bipartisan NASA Authorization Act calling on the agency to explore beyond the Earth’s orbit, with the long term goal of a human mission to Mars.

I recently visited Stennis Space Center and the Michoud Assembly Facility on the Gulf Coast, as well as the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, and I can tell that progress toward that goal is real. We also have Orion at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida being prepared for its first journey beyond the moon. We are going to Mars, and the rockets and engines and spacecraft that are the building blocks of that mission are being assembled and tested right now!

And if all continues to go well, by the end of next year, we will once again have American astronauts launching to space from Florida soil on American rockets, thanks to the partnerships NASA has forged with SpaceX and Boeing.

It is truly an exciting time for our space program.

This committee has always worked in a non-partisan manner, and I am pleased to be a part of continuing that tradition in this Congress as we work toward advancing and passing a NASA reauthorization.

Thank you all for being here, and I look forward to your testimony.

NOTE: Here’s the video of the hearing:

Testimony

Dr. Mary Lynne Dittmar, Executive Director, Coalition for Deep Space Exploration

https://www.commerce.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/0c00d945-8b13-459a-b4d2-f9332a6b50e8/DF832EEC59A3F95BF54A27A428B31D1C.mary-lynne-dittmar-testimony.pdf

— Professor Dan Dumbacher, Professor of Engineering Practice, Purdue University

https://www.commerce.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/8440fee8-7f3d-4826-8982-a416b47a21f8/10F369CEEB33EF9046B1F7CB806FB6D8.dumbacher-testimony.pdf

— Mr. William H. Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator of Human Exploration and Operations, NASA

https://www.commerce.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/717b8184-c4b5-40ee-95d5-e6fbcd88a2b8/4C33EB3C1AA70857EB01D5BE407417CE.william-gerstenmaier-testimony.pdf

— Mr. Mike Gold, Vice President of Washington Operations, SSL

https://www.commerce.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/22225dab-2f0d-437e-98d2-288c30ec9791/AC3538D71CDC78C585140280AE91E184.mike-gold-testimony.pdf

— Mr. Mark Sirangelo, Vice President of Space Systems Group, Sierra Nevada Corporation

https://www.commerce.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/be8462df-366f-40c7-9b53-52620dba59a8/E8B20E0FC59387B0E0E57907E81EC988.mark-sirangelo-testimony.pdf

 

Earth’s Moon as seen from the International Space Station taken by ESA British astronaut, Tim Peake. Credit: NASA/ESA

Earth’s Moon as seen from the International Space Station taken by ESA British astronaut, Tim Peake.
Credit: NASA/ESA

 

A senior Harvard astrophysicist is waving a cautionary flag about a loophole in the United Nations Outer Space Treaty that allows nations to exploit the Moon’s resources.

In particular, the scientist sees a race to claim the lunar “Peaks of Eternal Light,” bathed in near-perpetual sunlight and thus ideal for a photovoltaic power station.

Martin Elvis, Harvard astrophysicist. Credit: Martin Elvis

Martin Elvis, Harvard astrophysicist.
Credit: Martin Elvis

 

 

 

Martin Elvis, a Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) researcher is co-author of a recent paper that says provisions in the treaty allow nations to exploit resources, including through establishing research stations, and bar others from disrupting such endeavors.

Lunar South Pole, 4 peaks are identified which are illuminated more than 80% of the time. Credit: JAXA

Lunar South Pole, 4 peaks are identified which are illuminated more than 80% of the time.
Credit: JAXA

 

 

De facto ownership

In some cases, this could amount to de facto ownership, Elvis points out. As China and Japan plan Moon landings, and corporate leaders eye their own space ventures, the loophole has gained in importance, he says.

 

 

 

 

Alvin Powell, Harvard Staff Writer for the Harvard Gazette, interviews Elvis on his concerns, available here at:

http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2016/07/eternal-light-up-for-grabs/?utm_source=SilverpopMailing&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=07.13.2016%20(1)

 

Selfie taken earlier of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover at a drilled sample site called "Okoruso." Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Selfie taken earlier of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover at a drilled sample site called “Okoruso.”
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is deep into Sol 1398, back on line and in full operations.

New imagery indicates that the Mars machinery is back in photo-taking mode, relaying new photos of its surroundings.

This image was taken by Curiosity's Navcam: Left B on Sol 1398, July 12, 2016. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This image was taken by Curiosity’s Navcam Left B on Sol 1398, July 12, 2016.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Meanwhile, engineers continue to sharp shoot why the rover put itself into a safe standby mode on July 2. The rover team brought Curiosity out of safe mode on July 9.

 

 

According to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory Curiosity website: “The most likely cause of entry into safe mode has been determined to be a software mismatch in one mode of how image data are transferred on board.”

This Curiosity image was taken by Navcam Left B on Sol 1398, July 12, 2016. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This Curiosity image was taken by Navcam Left B on Sol 1398, July 12, 2016.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Science activity planning for the rover is avoiding use of that mode, according to JPL, a mode that involves writing images from some cameras’ memories into files on the rover’s main computer. Alternate means are available for handling and transmitting all image data.

Griffith Observatory Event