Archive for November, 2017

NASA’s InSight Mars lander is moving forward in testing, nearing “ship and shoot” status next year. The spacecraft is shown here fresh out of intense thermal vacuum test period.
Credit: Lockheed Martin

Littleton, Colorado – InSight, NASA’s next Mars mission is rapidly approaching “ship and shoot” status next year. This Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport — InSight for short space speak — has just completed “thermal vac” here at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company – builder of the Mars-bound craft.

Thermal vacuum testing (TVAC) simulates the cruel environment of space to appraise how the Mars-bound craft and its instruments operate under “flight-like” conditions.

For more information on this next NASA Mars mission, go to my new Space.com story at:

NASA’s Next Mars Lander Passes Big Test Ahead of May 2018 Launch

November 22, 2017 12:39pm ET

https://www.space.com/38868-nasa-mars-lander-insight-testing.html

Curiosity Navcam Left B image taken on Sol 1879, November 18, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Now in Sol 1883, NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is ready to carry out duties over the upcoming holiday.

Mars rover scientists have put together “two extra-large helpings of science” to get through the Thanksgiving holiday, reports Ryan Anderson, a planetary geologist at the USGS in Flagstaff, Arizona.

The first plan covers sols 1882 through 1886 and will mostly involve sitting in one place and not moving. While in this mode, Curiosity will be cooking a sample of “Ogunquit Beach” in the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) Instrument Suite via the Evolved Gas Analysis (EGA) oven.

Before that happens, the rover will use its Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) to look at the ground under the rover to see if anything has moved while the Mars machinery has been sitting at this location.

Curiosity Front Hazcam Left B image acquired on Sol 1882, November 21, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

 

 

Looking for frost

Anderson notes that at pre-dawn on sol 1883 the robot’s Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) is to analyze the rock target “Lebombo” and the soil “Oaktree” to look for evidence of frost.

Then, on sol 1885, remote sensing tasks includes use of Mastcam to collect multispectral observations of the target “Hexriver” and ChemCam will analyze the targets “Klipfonteinheuwel” and “Klippan.”

Curiosity Rear Hazcam Right B image taken on Sol 1882, November 21, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

 

 

Mt. Sharp observations

Anderson says he has advocated for ChemCam to use the Remote Micro-Imager (RMI) to take a closer look at an interesting geologic contact on Mt. Sharp.

Curiosity’s Mastcam is slated to document all of the ChemCam observations, as well as the ChemCam auto-targeted observation from sol 1878. Mastcam will repeat its clast (a rock fragment or grain resulting from the breakdown of larger rocks) survey observation from a few days ago to check for any changes, and then utilize the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) to analyze Klippan and Klipfonteinheuwel overnight.

Before dawn on Sol 1886, Anderson adds that ChemCam will once again analyze Lebombo and Oaktree to look for frost and Navcam and Mastcam will take advantage of the early start to make atmospheric observations.

Second plan

“The second plan for the long weekend covers Sols 1886 through 1888. Mastcam will take pictures of the two frost campaign targets, as well as another atmospheric observation,” Anderson explains.

Then ChemCam and Mastcam will take another look at the Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science (AEGIS) target from sol 1878.

“This target was given the name ‘Reivilo’ by two of our French colleagues who were on operations today…both named Olivier, who really like the name for some reason,” Anderson says. After that, the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) will take a closer look at Klipfonteinheuwel and Klippan and APXS will do an overnight calibration measurement.”

Dust Removal Tool at work. Curiosity Mastcam Right image acquired on Sol 1881, November 20, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

On Sol 1887 Curiosity will finally move on from the locale where the Mars machinery has been camped for a while, collecting some post-drive images to help with targeting next week.

Lastly, on tap is an untargeted science block.

Distant mesa

Curiosity’s ChemCam will use AEGIS software to automatically pick another target via artificial intelligence. There will be another attempt to observe Mt. Sharp with the RMI, Anderson points out, “this time to check for changes on a distant mesa that I have been monitoring.”

Curiosity ChemCam Remote Micro-Imager photo taken on Sol 1879, November 18, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL

 

The long weekend will wrap up with Navcam observations to check for clouds and dust devils, and Mastcam observations to measure the dust in the atmosphere.

“We on the Curiosity team are thankful every day that we get to be a part of the exploration of Mars,” Anderson concludes, “and next week we’ll pick up where we left off as we continue our campaign to explore Vera Rubin Ridge!”

Credit: ESA

I’ve had a keen interest in orbital debris for decades – writing for various publications on this topic from SpaceNews newspaper, SPACE.com to Foreign Policy magazine, as well as the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

Call it a reporter’s instinct, but I believe there’s a line of research that needs exploring: The overall impact of human-made orbital debris, solid and liquid propellant discharges, and other space age substances that reenter the Earth’s atmosphere.

 As for total mass of uncontrolled objects and human-made junk that reenters each year – it’s upwards of 80 metric tons. But that’s the trackable big stuff – never mind a deluge of other types of clutter – be it particles from spent solid rocket boosters to still-radioactive coolant that has been leaked from old nuclear-powered Soviet satellites.

It’s a garbage dump of heavenly proportions.

Credit: The Aerospace Corporation/CORDS

Guilt factor

I have been guilty, as have other reporters, of using the toss away line that this incoming material “burns up” – but in my view this is far from accurate. The chemistry from high heating of spacecraft materials – including beryllium, lithium, aluminum, nickel, etc. – is worthy of review, specifically the impact of this inflow of materials into Earth’s atmosphere, top to bottom.

In the recent past, Earth has been on the receiving end of large satellites, such as NASA’s decommissioned Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS), the Roentgen Satellite, ROSAT, a Germany/US/UK collaboration, as well as the failed Mars probe, Russia’s Phobos-Grunt – a vehicle also loaded with toxic fuels.

Fast forward to the present, keep an eye on China’s Tiangong-1 space lab closing in on its uncontrolled reentry early next year.

Artist’s view of China’s Tiangong-1 space station in Earth orbit.
Credit: CMSA

 

Slight-of-hand physics

In my opinion, we have conditioned ourselves to use the words “dissipate” and “burn up” as if some celestial slight-of-hand physics is at work that causes incoming junk to simply “vanish” and “disappear.”

I continue to look into this issue – and have some new upcoming surprises to report.

One early story was my published article in SpaceNews newspaper many years in the past – in fact, now over two decades ago.

Back in June of 1995, I wrote about a series of U.S. Air Force-sponsored studies having found that space hardware re-entering the atmosphere contributes to ozone depletion. The reentry process produces materials that combine with other elements in the Earth’s upper stratosphere that can produce a chemical reaction that leads to ozone reduction.

The studies also found that conventional rocket propellants released during launches produce byproducts that also are harmful to stratospheric ozone.

Lack of analysis

A series of separate space debris and ozone impact reports completed in 1994 were prepared for the Environmental Management Division of the U.S. Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles by TRW’s Space & Electronics Group in Redondo Beach, Calif., and The Aerospace Corporation in El Segundo, Calif.

“The impetus for these studies is to get our arms around what environmental impacts are there, potentially, in using space. This is a new frontier and a lot of this analysis hasn’t been done before,” said John Edwards, project officer of the studies and chief of the Air Force’s Environmental Management Division I noted in my SpaceNews piece.

View of the planet Earth from space during a sunrise.
Credit: SWRI

According to the TRW study entitled “Effects of the Impact of Deorbiting Space Debris on Stratospheric Ozone,” objects re-entering the atmosphere can affect ozone in several ways, but not on a significant level globally.

That said, as an object plows through the Earth’s stratosphere, a shock wave is created that produces nitric oxide, a known cause of ozone depletion. Spacecraft and rocket motors are composed of metal alloys and composite materials that melt away during re-entry. TRW researchers found that these materials, as they undergo intense heating, also form chemicals that react directly or indirectly to consume ozone.

Quadrennial assessment

Again, that was back then…but what about today?

For one, get ready for a new look at the issue of rocket emissions in an approaching United Nations 2018 Quadrennial Global Ozone Assessment that delves into substances that are responsible for ozone depletion.

Overall, given the multi-country upswing in rocket launches, the growth of spacecraft in Earth orbit, and the associated leftovers to get them there – could the Earth’s fragile atmosphere be under attack?

Clutter in the cosmos.
Credit: Used with permission: Melrae Pictures/Space Junk 3D

 

 

Just a passing thought – perhaps one not to pass by lightly.

I welcome other opinions on the role that the reentry process of human-made materials might have on the atmosphere, particularly at very high altitudes. Again, I feel that this topic area is worthy of investigation.

Curiosity Mastcam Left image acquired on Sol 1880, November 20, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Now in Sol 1882, NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has wheeled to a new spot on the Red Planet.

A three-sol plan has been scripted, “all about picking interesting targets to explore at our Thanksgiving stopover point,” reports Claire Newman, Environmental Science Theme Lead/Keeper of the Plan for Ashima Research.

Newman explains that the plan also includes setting the robot up for winter “frost detection” experiments, and getting Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) Instrument Suite ready “to do some power-hungry analysis while we stay put.”

Curosity Front Hazcam Left B image taken on Sol 1881, November 20, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Winter solstice

The Mars rover is just a few sols from southern winter solstice in Gale Crater on Mars, “which means it’s pretty much the coldest time of year and the best time for Curiosity to try to see water frost on the surface.”

If frost formation is observed, “this provides a lot of information for atmospheric scientists like me, who can use it to test models of when and how much frost should form on different types of surfaces, and to better understand how atmospheric water interacts with the surface and subsurface,” Newman points out. “The problem is that, even in winter, the temperatures in Gale only just dip below the frost point and then only right before dawn.”

Curiosity Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) photo acquired on Sol 1881, November 20, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Stay alert

Newman adds that in previous years of looking for frost, “we seem to have been unlucky…the last time we looked for winter frost, the experiment ran on what turned out to be the warmest night of the week. But this just means we have to stay alert to have a good chance of seeing it.”

Cool down

Science teams have chosen two targets to inspect: a small, smooth-topped sand patch, “Oaktree,” which sits in a kind of rock circle. Also targeted, a small rock with an east-facing slope called “Lebombo.”

“The sand should have a lower thermal inertia than rock, which means that it cools down more overnight and may be more likely to form frost,” Newman notes. “But porous sand can also tend to adsorb water instead of the water freezing on its top. So we also chose a rock target with an east-facing slope so it’s in shadow for as much of the afternoon as possible, which means it should be able to cool down a little more than other rocks overnight.”

Curiosity Rear Hazcam Right B image taken on Sol 1881, November 20, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Hard to detect

Because Mars researchers only expect the frost layer at the rover’s location to be a few microns thick, and to vanish rapidly when temperatures start going up at dawn, it’s very hard to detect with cameras.

“So we’ll be using the ChemCam instrument and its Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectrometer (LIBS) to vaporize the top few microns of the surface at night and look for extra hydrogen in the signal, then compare this to daytime measurements of a similar location on the same target,” Newman says.

Curiosity Mastcam Right image taken on Sol 1879, November 18, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Just before dawn

On the plan, the robot was set to take daytime hydrogen measurements first, then in the next plan nighttime measurements are to be taken, just before dawn on Sols 1883 and 1886.

Newman says scientists are keeping their fingers crossed for seeing a big increase in the hydrogen signal on at least one of the targets.

“As well as the frost preparations,” Newman continues, “our new location stood out from a distance as having lots of color variety in Mastcam images, and we were able to access both brighter and darker blocks with the arm.”

Contrast of targets

On the Curiosity script is brushing bright target “Hexriver” to remove the top dust layer with the Dust Removal Tool (DRT) before ChemCam and the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) are done, but the dark target “Zululand” was too small so no brushing will happen first.

Meanwhile, Curiosity’s Mastcam will be providing imaging of these targets, as well as documenting more of the light-gray/blue rocks that drew scientists to target “Natal” and the contrast between the bright and dark toned units on target “Kansa.”

Just before Sol 1880, the rover was to make Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD), Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) and Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) measurements “to get a better idea of the aerosols – dust and water ice – around during the frost experiments,” Newman reports. And finally, the robot’s SAM instrument suite will be preconditioning overnight over Thanksgiving, preparing it to analyze samples from all the way back from the rover’s inspection of the Bagnold Dunes, she concludes.

Credit: Rosie Muñoz on Instagram

NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security – Regolith Explorer asteroid sample return mission – mercifully shortened to OSIRIS-Rex, is the first U.S. mission to collect a sample of an asteroid and return it to Earth for study.

Next year, in August 2018, OSIRIS-REx’s approach to asteroid Bennu will begin. It will use an array of small rocket thrusters to match the velocity of Bennu and rendezvous with the space rock.

In March 2021, the window for departure from the asteroid will open, and OSIRIS-REx will begin its return journey to Earth, arriving two and a half years later in September 2023.

The sample return capsule will separate from the spacecraft and enter the Earth’s atmosphere. The capsule containing the asteroid specimens will be collected at the Utah Test and Training Range.

Artist concept of OSIRIS-REx at Bennu. Credit: NASA/Goddard

Pocket spacecraft

Time is on your side – but for the moment take your own pocket spacecraft for an adventure right here on Earth.

Snap a photo of your spacecraft TAG-ing something interesting where you live, work, study or travel. Then share it by using the hashtag #MyOSIRISREx and tagging the mission account on Twitter (@OSIRISREx) or Instagram (@OSIRIS_REx).

Note, when sharing images on social media as part of the #MyOSIRISREx campaign, please be aware that they may be re-shared to a larger audience by the mission accounts and/or other users.

Share a photo

Going somewhere? #MyOSIRISREx has been spotted in 23 countries and 29 U.S. states.

Help fill in the map by printing your own pocket spacecraft and sharing a photo of it TAGing something interesting where you are.

Go to:

http://asteroidmission.org//wp-content/uploads/2017/05/MyOSIRISRExPocketSpacecraft.pdf

Lena Okajima, ALE leader and chief star shooter.
Credit: ALE

Shooting stars on demand…that’s the business plan of ALE Corporation, Inc. of Tokyo, Japan.

ALE (Astro Live Experiences) is a space entertainment startup that wants to create shooting stars by using microsatellites. Its mission is to contribute to scientific research through entertainment. It was founded in September 2011 by Lena Okajima, a serial entrepreneur with a Ph.D. in Astronomy from the University of Tokyo.

ALE’s plan is that in early 2019, the first-ever eye-catching artificial meteors will create a light show in the sky above Hiroshima and the surrounding Setouchi region.

Sky canvas

Natural shooting stars occur when dust particles of several millimeters in size enter the Earth’s atmosphere and burn due to plasma emission.

Microsatellite used to pepper Earth’s atmosphere with artificial meteors.
Credit: ALE

ALE’s artificial shooting star business can turn the nighttime heavens into a “Sky Canvas.”

“We aim to artificially reproduce shooting stars by releasing grains of special material from orbiting artificial satellites into outer space and entering into the atmosphere. The appearance of grain burning in the atmosphere is like a shooting star from the ground, and its radiance can be enjoyed at the same time,” notes the ALE website.

ALE reproduces this artificially by inventing shooting star particles and using specially designed microsatellites.

Credit: ALE

Mass driver

Each of ALE’s mini-spacecraft would be loaded with the shooting star particles. An artificial meteor is ejected by a mass driver installed on a microsatellite. The mass driver injects a “pill” at high velocity that then deorbits into the atmosphere.

Once ejected via the tiny satellite, those particles will travel roughly one-third of the way around the Earth. They then burn upon entering the atmosphere, becoming shooting stars visible from an area some 125 miles (200 kilometers) in diameter on the ground.

For more information, go to:

http://star-ale.com/en/

Check out this video on the enterprising ALE at:

https://vimeo.com/231032391

Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

 

This artist’s impression shows the first detected interstellar asteroid:`Oumuamua.

The unique object was discovered on October 19, 2017 by the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope in Hawai`i. Subsequent observations were done by telescopes around the world, including the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT), the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) and the Keck Telescope on Maunakea, the Gemini South telescope, and the European Southern Observatory (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile.

Findings show that the object was on a path which must have been travelling through interstellar space for millions of years before its chance encounter with our star system. `Oumuamua seems to be a dark red highly-elongated metallic or rocky object — about 1,300 feet (400 meters) long — and is unlike anything normally found in the Solar System.

`Oumuamua is rapidly fading as it heads out of the solar system and recedes from both the Sun and the Earth, leaving in its wake memories of the science fiction novel, Rendezvous with Rama, by British writer Arthur C. Clarke first published in 1973. Set in the 2130s, the story involves a 31 mile (50-kilometer) cylindrical alien starship that enters Earth’s solar system.

The historic Apollo 11 command module, Columbia, is on tour to celebrate the upcoming 50th anniversary of the first human landing on the Moon in July 2019.

The milestone-making spacecraft is currently on view at Space Center Houston, Houston, Texas, from Oct. 14, 2017–March 18, 2018.

It next appears at the Saint Louis Science Center, St. Louis, Missouri from April 14–Sept. 3, 2018.

National tour

The traveling exhibition is called Destination Moon: The Apollo 11 Mission and has been developed by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and the National Air and Space Museum.

The exhibition’s two-year national tour will celebrate the approaching 50th anniversary of the mission and explore the birth and development of the American space program and the space race.

The tour brings the command module and more than 20 one-of-a-kind artifacts from the historic mission to some of the top museums in the country.

Credit: Space Center Houston

Exhibit stops: 2018-2020

Follow-on stops of the exhibit are:

  • Senator John Heinz History Center, Pittsburgh: Sept. 29, 2018–Feb. 18, 2019
  • The Museum of Flight, Seattle: March 16–Sept. 2, 2019

The Apollo 11 command module will return to a place of honor in the new exhibition “Destination Moon,” slated to open in 2020. This new permanent gallery is to be staged at the National Air and Space Museum on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

Interactives

Through original Apollo 11-flown objects, models, videos and interactives, visitors will learn about the historic journey of the Apollo 11 crew—Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin.

“Destination Moon” will include an interactive 3-D tour, created from high-resolution scans of Columbia performed at the Smithsonian in spring 2016. The interactives will allow visitors to explore the entire craft including its intricate interior, an interior that has been inaccessible to the public until now.

Credit: Mars Society

 

Mars Mastermind Robert Zubrin reports that “a giant leap forward” has been reached in a plan for on-the-spot production of rocket propellant on the Red Planet.

From November 14-15, his Colorado-based research and development team at Pioneer Energy, a spinoff company of Pioneer Astronautics, conducted a 24-hour non-stop demonstration of an integrated reverse water-gas shift (RWGS)-Methanol system.

The team with the machine.
Courtesy: Robert Zubrin

Teasing out tons

“We also did a 5-hour demonstration of a system for turning the methanol into dimethyl ether. All tests were witnessed by judges from the X-Prize Carbon capture completion,” Zubrin explains. He adds that if the water produced by the system were electrolyzed, it would produce 72-kilograms of oxygen per day, or 36-metric tons over a 500-day period. The methanol system would produce 52.5-metric tons of methanol. The dimethyl ether (DME) system would produce 28.5-tons of DME.

Oxygen burns with DME at a “stoichiometric” ratio of 2.087. So if the 28.5-tons of DME produced were combined with 59.5-tons of oxygen, a total of 88-tons of useful bipropellant would be available, Zubrin explains. Stoichiometry is a branch of chemistry that deals with the application of the laws of definite proportions and of the conservation of mass and energy to chemical activity.

Alternatively, Zubrin points out, if oxygen is viewed as the limiting propellant, by combining the 36-tons of oxygen with 20-tons of DME (to run slightly fuel rich) 56-tons of useful bipropellant would be available. If the oxygen product were used in a liquid oxygen/RP (rocket grade kerosene) engine burning at 2.8:1, a total of 49-tons of useful bipropellant would be available.

Mars ascent vehicle

In any case, more propellant would be produced by such a system, Zubrin adds than that required for the Mars ascent vehicle in the NASA design reference mission.

“Finally, it may be noted that if the RWGS system were run in parallel in a Sabatier Electrolysis (S/E) system sized to produce 48-kilograms of methane (CH4) and 96-kilograms of oxygen (O2) per day, a total of 24-tons of methane and 84-tons of oxygen would be produced, which is sufficient to fly the Mars Direct mission,” Zubrin notes. In-situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) “has entered a new world,” he concludes.

Credit: NASA

 

NASA’s MOXIE

NASA is also investing in ISRU, testing the concept on the Mars 2020 rover now being built and tested. Among its experiments, The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) will demonstrate a way that future explorers might produce oxygen from the Martian atmosphere for propellant and for breathing.

Zubrin told Inside Outer Space that MOXIE is a useful small step in testing ISRU on Mars. “But MOXIE will produce oxygen at a rate of 20 grams per hour. Our system can do 3 kilograms per hour, or 150 times the MOXIE rate. MOXIE is built on the scale of propellant manufacture for a robotic Mars sample return mission. Ours is full scale to make the ascent propellant for a human Mars expedition.”

Credit: Touchstone

Maximum results, minimum investment

Zubrin’s visionary Mars Direct plan was highlighted in the seminal book: The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must, first published in 1996, and revised and updated in 2011. Zubrin is also President of the Mars Society.

Mars Direct is a sustained humans-to-Mars plan blueprinted by Zubrin that advocates a minimalist, live-off-the-land approach to exploring the Red Planet, allowing for maximum results with minimum investment. Using existing launch technology and making use of the Martian atmosphere to generate rocket fuel, extracting water from the Martian soil and eventually using the abundant mineral resources of the Red Planet for construction purposes, the plan drastically lowers the amount of material which must be launched from Earth to Mars, thus sidestepping the primary stumbling block to space exploration and rapidly accelerating the timetable for human exploration of the solar system.

For more information on Mars Direct, go to:

http://www.marssociety.org/home/about/mars-direct/

 

Curiosity Mastcam Left image taken on Sol 1877, November 16, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

 

 

 

Curiosity Front Hazcam Right B image acquired on Sol 1879, November 18, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Curiosity ChemCam Remote Micro-Imager photo taken on Sol 1879, November 18, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL

Curiosity Mastcam Left image taken on Sol 1877, November 16, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

 

Curiosity Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) photo acquired on Sol 1879, November 18, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Griffith Observatory Event