Archive for November, 2016
It was a big year for China’s space program.
A Chinese checklist of successes includes their longest piloted space mission; first use of a new Kennedy Space Center-like spaceport, the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island off China’s southern coast; maiden flights of the Long March-7 and their heavy-lifter, the Long March-5.
Shoot for the moon
Both boosters are essential to an expansive space agenda – one dedicated to lofting and sustaining that nation’s multi-modular space station as well as, quite literally, shooting for the Moon.
And there’s more to come…take a read of my new Scientific American article:
China’s Big Year in Space Sparks Excitement and Speculation
The Chinese space agency launched a new space lab, sent up its longest crewed mission ever and tested out powerful new rockets
By Leonard David on November 30, 2016
Update Dec. 1st: Now in Sol 1536, NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has completed a cross-contamination experiment and cleaning of CHIMRA went well, “so we are ready to drill into the Precipice target!”
That’s the word from Ken Herkenhoff of the USGS.
Past drilling activities have made use of both rotation and percussion, but percussion has caused intermittent short circuits occasionally since Sol 911. Being the case, the Sol 1536 plan calls for testing the ability of the drill to acquire a sample using rotation only, without percussion.
“We expect that the Precipice target is soft enough that the experiment will go well, but of course we won’t know until we try! Drilling and associated imaging will require enough power and time that additional observations could not be added to the plan,” Herkenhoff adds.
The rover had a productive Thanksgiving weekend, reports Lauren Edgar, a research geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona.
During Sol 1534, the plan was to use the robot’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) of the post-sieve dump pile from the previous drill sample (“Sebina”).
That was to be followed by acquisition of Chemistry & Camera observations and Mastcam multispectral observation of the dump pile, Edgar notes.
In addition, the rover was on tap to clean out any remnants of the previous sample in order to prepare for a new one.
Also slated was use of ChemCam’s long distance Remote Micro-Imager (RMI) to produce a mosaic that investigates a linear feature observed from the powerful HiRISE camera system onboard the high-flying NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
The full drill hole is planned for Sol 1536, Edgar explains.
New word from Ken Herkenhoff, also of the USGS, is that the current drill campaign continues to go smoothly.
A Sol 1535 plan was dominated by an experiment to see if any Sebina sample material is left inside the drill bit chamber from the previous drilling. “This is motivated by the fact that we only used vibration to transfer that sample from the drill bit assembly into CHIMRA [the Collection and Handling for In-Situ Martian Rock Analysis device] rather than also using percussion.
“So it’s a “cross-contamination experiment” designed to see if the vibration didn’t do a complete job back when we first drilled Sebina,” Herkenhoff says. “Lots of images of the sieve and other parts of CHIMRA will be taken to verify that the system is clean.”
These activities will take a fair amount of time and power, Herkenhoff adds, but scientists were able to squeeze a few remote science observations into the plan. ChemCam will shoot its laser at bedrock targets named “West Tremont” and “Eastern Head,” and the Right Mastcam will image the same targets.
Curiosity’s Left Mastcam will also examine fracture patterns at “Sawyer’s Cove.” Finally, Navcam will search for clouds north of the rover.
As always projected rover activities are subject to change due to a variety of factors related to the Martian environment, communication relays and rover status.
CNN is ready to drop on the TV watcher a special report – “War in Space: The Next Battlefield” – airing Tuesday, November 29th at 9 p.m. Eastern Time.
“The stakes couldn’t be higher. How the US responds to this new threat could determine who wins the defining conflict of the 21st century,” explains a CNN overview on the television show.
Those featured in the show include: Gen. John Hyten, head of US Strategic Command; Gen. William Shelton, former head of Space Command; and Peter Singer, who advises the Defense Department on space threats and authored “Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War,” which runs through a scenario of space war.
America is “quietly developing advanced capabilities” that could, some day, have defensive or offensive missions in space, explains a CNN promo on the show.
Sounding the alarm
New weapons include the US Navy’s Laser Weapons System, or LAWs, the US military’s first operational laser weapon now deployed in the Persian Gulf on board the USS Ponce. Also, add in the X-37B, a pilotless space drone resembling the space shuttle without windows or a cockpit, a craft that has already flown multiple missions to space, CNN explains.
Russia and China are making rapid advances, with some of the most senior military commanders sounding the alarm that this is a war — the next world war and the first to extend beyond the confines of Earth – one that America could lose.
For more information on this CNN production, go to:
For more information on this topic and related issues, take a look at this book, Heavenly Ambitions – America’s Quest to Dominate Space by Joan Johnson-Freese, Professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College.
Chapters include: “Space: The Final Cold War Frontier”; “Space Weapons: Fact and Fiction”; and “Globalizing Space.”
For more information on this book, published by The University of Pennsylvania Press, go to:
Listen to this podcast by Johnson-Freese at:
Also, check out the latest from Johnson-Freese, Space Warfare in the 21st Century: Arming the Heavens.
This book examines the recent shift in US space policy and the forces that continually draw the US back into a space-technology security dilemma.
The dual-use nature of the vast majority of space technology, meaning of value to both civilian and military communities and being unable to differentiate offensive from defensive intent of military hardware, makes space an area particularly ripe for a security dilemma.
For more information on this offering, go to:
The Moon, Mars, the asteroids…and beyond…which shall it be?
Given the shift in U.S. political polarity, there is seemingly resurgence in “back to the Moon” thinking.
To regain your lunar legs, beef up on all things Moon by reading an impressive and informative book by Paul D. Spudis, a senior staff scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas.
His book — The Value of the Moon: How to Explore, Live, and Prosper in Space Using the Moon’s Resources – is available from Smithsonian Books and was released earlier this year.
In ten chapters, Spudis underscores three reasons for a U.S. return to the Moon: it is close, it is interesting, and it is useful.
“The Moon is the first extraterrestrial object after leaving Earth orbit and it is a highly desirable place to visit and utilize,” Spudis writes. “Why would we not want to explore and use it?”
Spudis adds that “other nations clearly see the value of the Moon. Why can’t we?”
Meanwhile, European eyes on space are turning to the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Ministerial Council to be held in Lucerne, Switzerland on December 1-2. Ministers in charge of space activities from the 22 ESA Member States and Canada will meet to decide on future space activities for Europe.
On the table among a long list of items, ESA contribution to the upcoming Russian-led Luna-Resource Lander (Luna 27) mission. It’s aimed at exploring for the first time the South polar region of the Moon and measuring the water believed to exist there and determine its origin.
So too is build-up of a European lunar exploration user community to exploit the engineering/scientific data and the other benefits generated during the Luna 27 project.
Also looming in ESA discussion is the Moon Village, espoused by Jan Wörner, ESA’s Director General.
The Ministerial Council takes place in the advent of the Space 4.0 era, ESA declares.
“Space 4.0 represents the evolution of the space sector into a new era, characterized by a new playing field,” observes a recent ESA press release. “This era is unfolding through interaction between governments, private sector, society and politics. Space 4.0 is analogous to, and is intertwined with, Industry 4.0, which is considered as the unfolding fourth industrial revolution of manufacturing and services.”
Vocal on village
Wörner notes that the Moon Village concept was developed through a process of thorough analysis “but it is vital to understand that what we are describing is neither a project nor a program.”
The ESA chief adds that by prompting discussion of a Moon Village “we do not mean a development planned around houses, some shops and a community center,” he explains.
“Rather, the term ‘village’ in this context refers this: a community created when groups join forces without first sorting out every detail, instead simply coming together with a view to sharing interests and capabilities,” Wörner points out.
It is precisely the open nature of the concept, Wörner continues, “that would allow many nationalities to go to the Moon and take part while leaving behind them on Earth any differences of opinion.”
Wörner also concludes that it is clear humans will take part in crewed flights farther into the Solar System, “so the Moon Village could also act as the perfect springboard and testing ground with that objective in mind.”
Note: For more information on the Paul Spudis book — The Value of the Moon: How to Explore, Live, and Prosper in Space Using the Moon’s Resources —go to:
Now just wrapping up Sol 1530 tasks, NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is ready to take on a multi-sol plan of operations.
The robot has a Thanksgiving holiday weekend task list that involves sols 1531-1533.
Reports Ryan Anderson, a planetary scientist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona:
“We are in place at our next drill location “Precipice” so there will be no driving in the plan, just a lot of science and preparation for drilling!
Trio of targets
The plan calls for starting off Sol 1531 with Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam) observations of Precipice as well as the targets “Frenchman Bay” and “Hunter’s Beach.”
That activity is to be followed by Mastcam documentation of all three targets.
“I also managed to fit a request for some Navcams of Mt. Sharp in the Sol 1531 science block to enable some long distance RMI [Remote Micro-Imager] observations next week,” Anderson adds.
After the science block of tasks, Curiosity is slated to do the “pre-load test” on the drilling target to improve the accuracy of the drill next week. Precipice will also be brushed off, and the rover’s Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) is to settle in for an overnight measurement.
Anderson points out that on Sol 1532, the plan is to start off with a Mastcam observation of the distant foothills of Mt. Sharp, multispectral imaging of the Precipice target (along with the associated calibration target), and imaging of the rover deck to watch for changes in the sand and dust that have collected there.
Curiosity’s Mastcam is then to take a stereo image of the location where the previous drill sample will be dumped.
ChemCam has an observation of a target called “Breakneck Pond” which will then be documented by the robot’s Mastcam.
“We will round out the science block with Mastcam and Navcam atmospheric observations. Finally, on Sol 1533, we will dump out our previous drill sample and do an APXS measurement on the dump pile,” Anderson concludes.
As always, projected dates of rover activities are subject to change due to a variety of factors related to the martian environment, communication relays and rover status.
European Space Agency technicians are still in full-probe mode regarding the loss of their ExoMars 2016 Schiaparelli lander.
The vehicle crashed onto Mars on October 19th.
Schiaparelli’s atmospheric entry and associated braking occurred exactly as expected, reports ESA today.
The parachute deployed normally at an altitude of 7.5 miles (12 kilometers) and a speed of 1730 km/h. The vehicle’s heatshield, having served its purpose, was released at an altitude of 4.8 miles (7.8 kilometers).
However, Schiaparelli Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) data indicates that the craft experienced an unexpected event lasting about one second shortly after parachute deployment.
That data, when merged into the lander’s navigation system, generated an estimated altitude that was negative – that is, below ground level, ESA reports.
“This in turn successively triggered a premature release of the parachute and the backshell, a brief firing of the braking thrusters and finally activation of the on-ground systems as if Schiaparelli had already landed.”
In truth, the lander was still at an altitude of around 2.3 miles (3.7 kilometers).
This bad behavior has been clearly reproduced in computer simulations of the control system’s response to the erroneous information, ESA reports.
“This is still a very preliminary conclusion of our technical investigations,” says David Parker, ESA’s Director of Human Spaceflight and Robotic Exploration.
“The full picture will be provided in early 2017,” Parker adds, “by the future report of an external independent inquiry board, which is now being set up, as requested by ESA’s Director General, under the chairmanship of ESA’s Inspector General.”
Orbiter performing well
Meanwhile, high above Mars, the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (it released the Schiaparelli lander) is performing well.
The orbiter is starting its first series of science observations since arriving at the Red Planet on October 19, taking advantage of the initial parking orbit before beginning a long series of aerobraking maneuvers that will deliver the spacecraft to its operational orbit towards the end of 2017.
NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars is just wrapping up Sol 1528 duties.
Given a recent rover drive of roughly 52 feet (16 meters), that gives the robot a total drive distance to just over 9.3 miles (15 kilometers) since it landed in August 2012.
Keep in mind that I have been told a human field geologist would click off that mileage in about a day’s time!
That said, Curiosity’s weekend drive has put the robot in place for a new drill target: “Precipice.”
Holiday weekend plan
“We have a three sol plan…as we head into the long holiday weekend and prepare for drilling next week,” reports Ryan Anderson, a planetary scientist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona.
On Sol 1528, Mastcam was slated to take a 3×10 mosaic to provide context for the drill site, followed by Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam) images of the drill bit and a Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) twilight image of the ground beneath the rover.
Look for dust devils
On the following sol, Anderson notes that the robot’s Navcam and Mastcam are scheduled to start the day with a set of atmospheric observations to watch for dust devils and measure the amount of dust in the atmosphere.
Following that, ChemCam has a passive sky observation, followed by active measurements of the targets “Thomas Bay,” “The Anvil,” and “The Ovens.”
Curiosity’s Mastcam will then have a change detection observation on the targets “Hulls Cove” and “Big Heath” – along with documentation of the ChemCam targets, including the autonomous software-selected surface target from sol 1526.
Environmental data gathering
The rover’s Mastcam and Navcam are then slated to repeat some of the atmospheric observations from the morning.
“In contrast to our busy Sol 1529, sol 1530 will be relatively quiet,” Anderson adds, with a focus on downlinking data and normal background data collection from the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) and the Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) device.
A new map has been posted showing Curiosity’s traverse through Sol 1526.
The map shows the route driven by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity through the 1526 Martian day, or sol, of the rover’s mission on Mars as of November 21, 2016.
Numbering of the dots along the line indicate the sol number of each drive. North is up.
The scale bar is one kilometer (roughly 0.62 mile).
From Sol 1521 to Sol 1526, Curiosity had driven a straight line distance of about 29.98 feet (9.14 meters), bringing the rover’s total odometry for the mission to 9.33 miles (15.01 kilometers).
New research is not only advancing our understanding about Mars’ history but has identified a possible resource for future expeditionary crews to the Red Planet.
Thanks to hundreds of overhead passes with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s Shallow Radar (SHARAD) instrument, data accumulated indicates that about as much water as the volume of Lake Superior lies in a thick layer beneath a portion of Utopia Planitia.
According to a statement from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory released today:
The deposit is more extensive in area than the state of New Mexico.
The deposit ranges in thickness from about 260 feet (80 meters) to about 560 feet (170 meters), with a composition that’s 50 to 85 percent water ice, mixed with dust or larger rocky particles.
A team of scientists led by The University of Texas at Austin made the subsurface find using data from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Plains of paradise
By the way, the name Utopia Planitia translates loosely as the “plains of paradise.”
The newly surveyed ice deposit spans latitudes from 39 to 49 degrees within the plains. It represents less than one percent of all known water ice on Mars, but it more than doubles the volume of thick, buried ice sheets known in the northern plains.
Ice deposits close to the surface are being considered as a resource for astronauts. However, far more work will be needed to appreciate the quality of the ice deposits, including the types of machinery to extract and successfully process this resource.
Additionally, plans are now being blueprinted for a future Mars orbiter that totes a more powerful radar system. This orbiter, perhaps developed as an international project, would identify global resources on the red planet useful for a sustained humans-on-Mars effort.
Joe Levy of the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics, a co-author of the new study, explained in a press statement:
“The ice deposits in Utopia Planitia aren’t just an exploration resource. They’re also one of the most accessible climate change records on Mars,” he said. “We don’t understand fully why ice has built up in some areas of the Martian surface and not in others. Sampling and using this ice with a future mission could help keep astronauts alive, while also helping them unlock the secrets of Martian ice ages.”
SHARAD is one of six science instruments on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which began its prime science phase 10 years ago this month.
The Italian Space Agency provided the SHARAD instrument and Sapienza University of Rome leads its operations. The Planetary Science Institute, based in Tucson, Arizona, leads U.S. involvement in SHARAD. JPL, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, manages the orbiter mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver built the spacecraft and supports its operations.
For the research paper carried in the journal Geophysical Research Letters go to:
The release from the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics, go to:
Note: As reported earlier by Inside Outer Space, there are some intriguing and comparative observations on Earth and Mars and the possible discovery of past life on the Red Planet.
Here is a story from Arizona State University’s (ASU) School of Earth and Space Exploration written by ASU’s Robert Burnham dated November 17, 2016.
Two geo-scientists at Arizona State University have made a discovery among hot springs in Chile that may spur scientists to revisit a location on Mars explored several years ago by NASA’s Spirit rover. The discovery involves finger-like structures that form in the hot spring deposits by processes that combine biological and non-biological activity.
The Chilean hot springs are at a place called El Tatio and lie at the edge of the extremely dry Atacama Desert, one of the best “Mars analog” sites on Earth.
Co-authors Steve Ruff and Jack Farmer, of ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, report that El Tatio produces silica deposits with structures influenced by living organisms that appear nearly identical to those found eight years ago by Spirit in Gusev Crater on Mars. Their report was recently published by Nature Communications.
The question naturally arises whether what Spirit found on Mars might also have been influenced by life.
“Mars exploration has reached a stage where we can start looking for ‘biosignatures’,” says lead author Ruff. Biosignatures are naturally occurring traces that indicate the presence of life, either today or in the past.
On Earth fossils are an everyday example of a biosignature of past life. But biosignatures can take more subtle forms such as organic molecules trapped in rocks. Biosignatures can also include physical structures such as compacted mats of microorganisms called stromatolites, found in various environments on Earth.
No lander or rover on Mars has yet detected any fossils. So scientists assume that any Martian biosignature would be small — think microscopic — and difficult to identify, let alone even find, on a planet with as much surface area as all of Earth’s land areas.
Roaming the hills
In 2007, NASA’s rover Spirit was exploring next to an eroded deposit of volcanic ash dubbed Home Plate in the Columbia Hills of Gusev Crater on Mars.
The rover’s right front wheel motor had failed, and as the rover dragged the stuck wheel like a plow across the ground, it uncovered a rich deposit of pure silica surrounded by outcrops also rich in silica. This is a mineral commonly found in hot springs and geysers like those that Yellowstone National Park is famous for.
Ruff was one of the scientists who identified the silica mineral and, along with Farmer, published observations supporting a hot spring origin. But the unusual nodular and fingerlike structures of the silica outcrops next to Home Plate were poorly understood.
Looking for similarities
Several years later, Ruff learned about the El Tatio hot springs from a scientific journal. The hot springs are among the highest known active thermal springs on Earth (over 14,000 feet). At night, even in summer, temperatures at El Tatio often drop below freezing, and by day lots of ultraviolet light from the Sun comes through the thin, dry air. This makes El Tatio probably the best terrestrial analog for ancient Martian hot springs.
“We went to El Tatio looking for comparisons with the features found by Spirit at Home Plate,” says Ruff. “Our results show that the conditions at El Tatio produce silica deposits with characteristics that are among the most Mars-like of any silica deposits on Earth.”
These characteristics compare favorably with the Martian Home Plate silica outcrops, Ruff explains. “The fact that microbes play a role in producing the distinctive silica structures at El Tatio raises the possibility that the Martian silica structures formed in a comparable manner — in other words with the help of organisms that were alive at the time.”
NASA has plans to send a new rover to Mars in 2020. The yet-unnamed rover will be similar in size and power to the Curiosity rover, currently exploring Gale Crater. But the new rover will have more advanced instruments and the ability to collect and cache samples for later retrieval.
So where should the 2020 rover go?
As NASA did with Curiosity, it has held a series of workshops over several years where Mars scientists present their best case for one landing site or another. At the end of each workshop, candidate sites are ranked according to their fitness in regard to certain qualities. These include geological setting, potential for preserving biosignatures, and quality of returned samples.
Currently the Columbia Hills/Home Plate site in Gusev Crater stands number two on the list of eight candidates. It’s second only to an ancient lakebed in Jezero Crater on the northwest edge of Isidis Planitia, an old impact basin. The next site selection workshop is scheduled for February 2017, with plans to cut the list down to a “Final Four.”
Although returning to Gusev’s Columbia Hills and Home Plate would rule out exploring a completely new area of Mars — which many scientists would like to do — Ruff and Farmer are hopeful that the site’s chances are quite good.
“This is a known hydrothermal deposit,” says Ruff. “We know exactly where to land and where to go collect samples. And the silica structures found by Spirit meet the definition of a potential biosignature.”
Space junk…a menacing and growing environmental worry.
Now a unique art project reveals the world of space junk, making it personal, visible and audible.
Called Adrift, this UK project takes the form of an interactive experience, a documentary film, as well as a listen-up sound experience.
Adopt a chunk of junk
A trio of relics that are emblematic of orbital debris can be “adopted” by participants:
- A U.S. Vanguard satellite: “I circle Earth every 130 minutes. I will continue to orbit above you for the next 240 years.”
- Suitsat: “I was pushed out into Space in 2006 by astronauts on the International Space Station”
- Fengyun: A Chinese piece of space junk “from the worst space debris event of all time. Go. Me.”
Adrift has been created by film maker Cath Le Couteur and Nick Ryan, an audio specialist, sound designer, composer and artist. Adding to the mix of team members is scientific advisor Hugh Lewis, a space debris expert from the University of Southampton.
Part of the Adrift multi-sensory experience is Ryan’s “Machine 9” – a handcrafted electromechanical sound instrument that tracks the positions of 27,000 pieces of space junk, transforming them into sound, in real time, as they pass overhead.
The launch of Adrift took place this month, headed for its opening next year at Hackney House in London.
For more information on the three-part Adrift initiative that includes an informative documentary video, go to: