Archive for August, 2016
European Space Agency engineers reported today that a solar panel on the Copernicus Sentinel-1A satellite was hit by a millimeter-size particle in orbit on August 23.
The strike produced a sudden small power reduction and slight changes in the orientation and the orbit of the satellite.
“Following a preliminary investigation, the operations team at ESA’s control center in Darmstadt, Germany suspected a possible impact by space debris or micrometeoroid on the solar wing,” according to a ESA statement.
Engineers decided to activate the board cameras on the spacecraft to acquire pictures of the array. These cameras were originally carried to monitor the deployment of the satellite’s solar wings just a few hours after launch in April 2014, and were not intended to be used afterwards.
Solar panel strike
Following their switch-on, one camera provided a picture that clearly shows the strike on the solar panel.
This event has no effect on the satellite’s routine operations, which continue normally, ESA stated.
The Sentinel-1 satellites, part of the European Union’s Copernicus Program, are operated by ESA on behalf of the European Commission.
China is in final checkout mode for its next piloted space mission – a multi-faceted undertaking that lays the foundation for the country to construct in Earth orbit a multi-modular space station in the 2020s.
Both the Tiangong-2 (meaning “Heavenly Palace”) and the piloted Shenzhou-11 spacecraft are now undergoing checkout at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China.
To be rocketed spaceward in mid-September, China’s Tiangong-2 is a true “space lab” that will verify key technologies for building China’s space station, explains its chief designer, Zhu Zongpeng.
For more information on China’s next space traveling step, go to my new Space.com story at:
China Readies Next ‘Heavenly Palace’ for Mid-September Launch
By Leonard David, Space.com’s Space Insider Columnist
August 31, 2016 07:00am ET
Also, take a look at this set of YouTube videos on China preparations:
How can you survive on the Red Planet? What’s the science behind the human exploration of Mars?
Australia’s Monash University has created a world-first online course designed to teach participants for free about how to live on Mars, where there is no air, water or food – yet!
Starting October 24, the course will examine interdisciplinary skills and meticulous planning required for sustaining human life on the Red Planet’s hostile environment.
The course runs for four weeks at three hours per week.
Problem solving skills
Case studies and insights from leading experts in the field of chemistry, astronomy, physics and geology will demonstrate the basic science and problem solving skills you can use in everyday life – be it on Earth or Mars.
The online course is led by a Monash University team: astrophysicist Jasmina Lazendic-Galloway, and chemist Tina Overton. They have developed an interdisciplinary online science journey to inspire new generations of Martian explorers.
The free FutureLearn course is for anyone who wants to learn more about the basic science required to survive on Mars, and does not require prior knowledge of the subject.
For more information go to:
Also, you can access a FAQ about FutureLearn courses at:
On Mars, NASA’s Curiosity rover has just begun Sol 1446 activities.
The robot work plan for last weekend went well, reports Ken Herkenhoff at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona.
“The rover’s batteries have enough energy to proceed with another drive on Sol 1446,” Herkenhoff adds.
New Mastcam images of the nearby buttes have been reviewed by science planners, prior to laying out details of a two-sol plan.
On Sol 1446, the schedule calls for Mastcam to extend coverage of previously-planned mosaics, and the Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) will use its laser to measure the chemistry of “Muchinda” on a large outcrop block.
After the drive, ChemCam will autonomously make another observation using the Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science (AEGIS) software.
Upcoming: new drill sample
Overnight, Curiosity’s Chemistry & Mineralogy X-Ray Diffraction/X-Ray Fluorescence Instrument (CheMin) is slated to prepare and analyze an empty sample cell in anticipation of a new drill sample.
Lastly, Herkenhoff notes that early on Sol 1447, the rover’s Mastcam and Navcam are on tap to measure the dust in the atmosphere and search for clouds. Most of these observations will be repeated, he notes, just before local noon and late in the afternoon to look for short-term changes.
As always, planned rover activities are subject to change due to a variety of factors related to the Martian environment, communication relays and rover status.
Carnegie’s Scott Sheppard and Chadwick Trujillo of Northern Arizona University have observed several never-before-seen objects at extreme distances from the Sun in our Solar System.
That’s the word today as teams of researchers continue the look to discover a purported ninth “planet” in our Solar System.
In 2014, Sheppard and Trujillo announced the discovery of 2012 VP113 (nicknamed “Biden”), which has the most-distant known orbit in our Solar System. They also noticed that the handful of known extreme trans-Neptunian objects all cluster with similar orbital angles.
That research prodded them to predict that there is a planet at more than 200 times our distance from the Sun. Its mass, ranging in possibility from several Earths to a Neptune equivalent, is shepherding these smaller objects into similar types of orbits.
Some have termed this world as Planet X or Planet 9.
Origins and evolution
“Objects found far beyond Neptune hold the key to unlocking our Solar System’s origins and evolution,” Sheppard explained in a Carnegie press statement.
“Though we believe there are thousands of these small objects, we haven’t found very many of them yet, because they are so far away,” Sheppard said. “The smaller objects can lead us to the much bigger planet we think exists out there. The more we discover, the better we will be able to understand what is going on in the outer Solar System.”
The new objects they have submitted to the Minor Planet Center for designation include 2014 SR349, which adds to the class of the rare extreme trans-Neptunian objects.
Another new extreme object they found is 2013 FT28.
And yet another discovery, 2014 FE72, is the first distant Oort Cloud object found with an orbit entirely beyond Neptune. It has an orbit that takes the object so far away from the Sun (some 3000 times farther than Earth) that it is likely being influenced by forces of gravity from beyond our Solar System such as other stars and the galactic tide. It is the first object observed at such a large distance, according to the Carnegie Science press release.
Constrain the location
The more objects that are found at extreme distances, the better the chance of constraining the location of the ninth planet that Sheppard and Trujillo first predicted to exist far beyond Pluto (itself no longer classified as a planet) in 2014.
Sheppard and Trujillo have now submitted their latest discoveries to the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center for official designations. A paper about the discoveries has also been accepted by The Astronomical Journal.
For more information, go to:
Now in Sol 1444, the Curiosity Mars rover is to attempt a drive next week – failing to wheel forward last Wednesday due to an unanticipated flight software interaction, reports Lauren Edgar, a research geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Now carrying out a weekend plan, the robot is slated to focus on Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) Instrument Suite activities. A SAM pre-conditioning activity to prepare the sample cup prior to delivery of the Marimba2 drill sample is to be completed.
Also on the schedule is acquiring a Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam) observation of the target “Viana 2” to assess the chemistry of the local bedrock and nodules.
Ridges and possible channel features
“Then we’ll take a Mastcam mosaic to document several light-toned ridges and possible channel features, followed by several environmental monitoring activities,” Edgar notes. “In the afternoon we’ll drop off the Marimba2 sample to SAM, and the evolved gas analysis will occur overnight.”
Other weekend tasks includes ChemCam observations of “Ganda” and “Catabola,” followed by use of the rover’s Dust Removal Tool (DRT) and carrying out contact science on “Ganda,” and use of the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) and another short Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) integration on the target “Andulo.”
“This is a very power heavy and complex plan…a busy weekend,” Edgar concludes.
The last planned Sol is to be relatively light, with a ChemCam passive and Mastcam multispectral observation on “Ganda,” and additional ChemCam laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) looks at target “Calonda,” and some Mastcam deck monitoring.
NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is now in Sol 1442 operations, continuing to capture impressive views of the Murray Buttes as the robot presses onward to investigate lower Mount Sharp.
This site was informally named nearly three years ago to honor Caltech planetary scientist Bruce Murray (1931-2013), a former director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.
JPL manages the Curiosity mission for NASA.
The buttes and mesas are capped with rock that is relatively resistant to wind erosion. This helps preserve these monumental remnants of a layer that formerly more fully covered the underlying layer that the rover is now driving on.
Meanwhile, new research from University College London (UCL) suggests there is an extensive system of fossilized riverbeds on an ancient region of the Martian surface. The discovery supports the view, according to a UCL press statement, that the now cold and dry Red Planet had a warm and wet climate about four billion years ago.
Evidence of flowing water
The study has been published in the Geological Society of America’s Geology journal and funded by the Science & Technology Facilities Council and the UK Space Agency. The research work identified over 10,560 miles (17,000 kilometers) of former river channels on a northern plain called Arabia Terra, providing further evidence of water once flowing on Mars.
Preservation of biological material?
“We think the rivers were active 3.9–3.7 billion years ago, but gradually dried up before being rapidly buried and protected for billions of years, potentially preserving any ancient biological material that might have been present,” says lead author of the paper, Joel Davis (UCL Earth Sciences).
These ancient Martian flood plains would be “great places” to search for evidence of past life on the Red Planet, adds Matthew Balme, Senior Lecturer at The Open University and co-author of the study.
Balme points out that one area of the channels called Aram Dorsum is on the landing site list for the European Space Agency’s ExoMars Rover mission in 2020.
The new Geology research paper is available here:
The word from Curiosity Mars rover scientists is that the robot is making good progress through the Murray Buttes
Now in Sol 1441, the rover drove some 112 feet (34 meters) to the south on Sol 1439.
According to Lauren Edgar, a research geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona, Curiosity planning for sols ahead include a routine pre-drive science block, drive, post-drive imaging for targeting, and an untargeted science block.
The forward plan starts with Mastcam and Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) observations of the targets “Viana,” “Ukuma,” and “Waku Kungo” to assess the composition and sedimentary structures in the local bedrock.
A large Mastcam mosaic is slated to document some of the buttes.
After an upcoming drive, Curiosity is to take post-drive imaging for targeting and context, as well as an autonomously selected ChemCam target using special software.
A second sol calls for atmospheric monitoring, including a ChemCam passive sky activity, and Navcam observations to search for dust devils and clouds.
“If we keep up this driving pace,” Edgar adds, “we could be looking for our next drill target as early as next Wednesday!”
The European Space Agency’s Rosetta comet orbiter has caught on camera an outburst from the celestial wanderer.
According to an ESA press statement today, Rosetta unexpectedly captured a dramatic comet outburst that may have been triggered by a landslide.
Nine of Rosetta’s instruments, including its cameras, dust collectors, and gas and plasma analyzers, were monitoring the comet from about 35 km in a coordinated planned sequence when the outburst happened on February 19th.
Rosetta’s OSIRIS wide-angle camera captured the outburst from the Atum region on Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko’s large lobe.
Over a two hour period, Rosetta recorded outburst signatures that exceeded background levels in some instruments by factors of up to a hundred.
Astronomers on Earth also noted an increase in coma density in the days after the outburst.
“The fact that the outburst started when this area just emerged from shadow suggests that thermal stresses in the surface material may have triggered a landslide that exposed fresh water ice to direct solar illumination,” explains ESA. “The ice then immediately turned to gas, dragging surrounding dust with it to produce the debris cloud seen by OSIRIS,” the press statement adds.
Rosetta was launched in 2004, catching up with the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko ten years later.
On November 12, 2014, the orbiter released the Philae probe that repeatedly bounced across the comet then came to a full-stop to relay science data.
The Rosetta orbiter is set to complete its mission in a controlled descent to the surface of its comet on September 30th.
Next month’s descent will enable Rosetta to make up-close measurements, including very-high-resolution imaging.
Communications will cease, however, once the orbiter reaches the surface, and its operations will then end.
The target region for Rosetta’s impact is still under discussion. It is expected that Rosetta’s impact will take place at about 1 mile per hour (50 centimeters per second).
For a ring side seat to the outburst, go to:
For you interstellar travelers out there – it’s a doable target!
Proxima b is the closest possible home for life outside the solar system – a mere jump away at four-light-years.
An international team of scientists led by astronomers at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) announced today clear evidence of a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our solar system.
Using facilities operated by ESO (the European Southern Observatory) and other telescopes, the research indicates that Proxima b orbits its parent star every 11 days. It appears that the rocky world – slightly more massive than the Earth — sports a temperature suitable for liquid water to exist on its surface.
In a QMUL press statement, the lead author and coordinator of the project, Guillem Anglada-Escudé from QMUL’s School of Physics and Astronomy, said:
“Succeeding in the search for the nearest terrestrial planet beyond the solar system has been an experience of a lifetime, and has drawn on the dedication and passion of a number of international researchers. We hope these findings inspire future generations to keep looking beyond the stars. The search for life on Proxima b comes next.”
While the temperate orbit of Proxima b is a plus, the conditions on the surface may be strongly affected by the ultraviolet and X-ray flares from the star Proxima Centauri — a red dwarf star — these would be far more intense than those the Earth experiences from the Sun.
Furthermore, the actual suitability of this kind of planet to support water and Earth-like life is a matter of intense but mostly theoretical debate.
The QMUL press statement notes: “Major concerns that count against the presence of life are related to the closeness of the star. For example gravitational forces probably maintain the same side of the planet in perpetual daylight, while the other side is in perpetual night. The planet’s atmosphere might also slowly be evaporating or have more complex chemistry than Earth’s due to stronger ultraviolet and X-ray radiation, especially during the first billion years of the star’s life.”
However, none of the arguments has been proven conclusively, the QMUL statement continues, “and they are unlikely to be settled without direct observational evidence and characterization of the planet’s atmosphere.
This discovery will kick-start a campaign of further observations, both with current instruments and with next generation of giant telescopes, such as ESO’s European Extremely Large Telescope, as well as space-based telescopes.
“Proxima b will be a prime target for the hunt for evidence of life elsewhere in the universe,” noted the QMUL press statement.
In their research paper published in Nature – “A terrestrial planet candidate in a temperate orbit around Proxima Centauri” – the authors conclude:
“In this sense, a warm terrestrial planet around Proxima offers unique follow-up opportunities to attempt further characterization via transits -on going searches-, via direct imaging and high-resolution spectroscopy in the next decades, and –maybe– robotic exploration in the coming centuries.”
Can we reach the stars? If we can, the natural first step is our nearest star system, Alpha Centauri – four light years away.
Enter Breakthrough Starshot – a $100 million research and engineering program aiming to demonstrate proof of concept for a new technology, enabling ultra-light unmanned space flight at 20% of the speed of light; and to lay the foundations for a flyby mission to Alpha Centauri within a generation.
Breakthrough Initiatives plans to develop a proof-of-concept fleet of light sail spacecraft, namedStarChip, capable of making the journey to the Alpha Centauri star system, 4.37 light-years away.
The Breakthrough Initiatives were founded in 2015 by Yuri and Julia Milner to explore the Universe, seek scientific evidence of life beyond Earth, and encourage public debate from a planetary perspective.
For more information, go to:
Proxima b was added to the Habitable Exoplanets Catalog (HEC) “as one of the best objects of interest for the search for life in the universe.”
The Planetary Habitability Laboratory (PHL) is a research and education virtual laboratory dedicated to studies of the habitability of Earth, the Solar System, and exoplanets. The PHL is managed by the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo.
Go to: http://phl.upr.edu/
The new research paper published in Nature can be read here:
- To get up to speed on the Directed Energy Interstellar Study by Philip Lubin at the University of California, Santa Barbara, go to:
- A video discussing Lubin’s work and his NASA Innovative Advanced Concept (NIAC) research concerning energy propulsion for interstellar exploration is available here:
- Lastly, Lubin is scheduled to discuss today his current work at the 2016 NIAC Symposium now underway in Raleigh, North Carolina. To tap into the NIAC live stream presentations, go to: