Archive for March, 2019

Credit: ESA – P.Carril


THE WOODLANDS, Texas – The Earth was on the receiving end of a little-noticed intruder back in late 2018. A hefty space rock detonated over an isolated stretch of the Bering Sea, between Russia and Alaska.

The blast occurred at roughly 16 miles above the ocean, yielding an energetic, high-altitude punch judged to be 40 percent the energy release of the destructive February 2013 meteor blast over Chelyabinsk, Russia.

This late news bombshell was unveiled here by Kelly Fast, NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observations program manager, during a media briefing on NASA’s planetary defense programs prior to the start of this week’s 50th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference.

For more details, go to my new Scientific American story:

Huge Meteor Explosion a Wake-Up Call for Planetary Defense

Detonating over the Bering Sea, the blast was as powerful as a nuclear bomb


Credit: IBMP



Russia’s SIRIUS (Scientific International Research in Unique Terrestrial Station) experiment is now underway and simulating a flight to the Moon.

The SIRIUS crew headed for the Moon: From left to right: Reinhold Povilaitis (USA), Daria Zhidova (Russia), Commander Yevgeny Tarelkin (Russia), Anastasia Stepanova (Russia), Allen Mirkadyrov (USA)
and Stephania Fedeye (Russia). Credit: IBMP

Six members of the international SIRIUS crew started a 120-day experiment to simulate the flight to the Moon at Moscow’s Institute of Biomedical Problems (IBMP) on Tuesday.

Cosmonaut commander

The SIRIUS-19 experiment is being conducted under the command of 44-year-old Russian cosmonaut Evgeny Tarelkin, who has already carried out one space mission. Tarelkin crewmates are Reinhold Povilaitis, Allen Mirkadyrov (both U.S.), Daria Zhidova, Anastasia Stepanova and Stephania Fedeye (all Russian).

Credit: DLR



U.S. representatives

Two U.S. representatives are taking part in the experiment: Reinhold Povilaitis, an analyst of research and operations on NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and Allen Mirkadyrov in Telecommunication Networks and Technologies of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Christian Rogon is SIRIUS Project Manager at the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) Space Administration. DLR is participating in the SIRIUS-19 isolation study together with the French space agency (CNES) under the leadership of the Russian space agency Roscosmos and NASA.

Moon visit

Credit: DLR

In addition to the numerous experiments and the many everyday challenges, one very special highlight awaits the crew – a visit to the Moon.

“Exactly halfway through the SIRIUS isolation study, four ‘cosmonauts’ will land on the lunar surface in a small capsule,” DLR’s Rogon explains. “Once there, they will carry out several ‘Moon walks’ while wearing spacesuits, collect samples and prepare a ‘settlement’ on the Moon – a very special experience.”

Two ‘cosmonauts’ will stay behind in the orbital lunar station and monitor the excursion. After the return and successful docking of the lander with the station, the whole crew will orbit the Moon together for another 30 days. During this time, they will remotely control rovers on the lunar surface, dock more spaceships with the orbital station, and carry out numerous experiments before returning to Moscow, notes a DLR statement on SIRIUS-19.

NASA/IBMP collaboration

NASA and the State Research Center Institute for Biomedical Problems of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IBMP) have a long and successful history of collaborating on joint research related to human health and well-being in space.

NASA’s HRP (Human Research Program), and IBMP are conducting research to identify preventive measures and technologies to protect the health of astronauts and astronauts during space flight.

Curiosity Front Hazcam Right B photo taken on Sol 2353, March 20, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech



NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is now performing Sol 2353 duties.

Curiosity has made the drive to a rock called “Muir of Ord,” which has a cracked surface, reports Dawn Sumner, a planetary geologist at the University of California Davis in Davis, California. The network of cracks in this Martian rock slab called “Old Soaker” may have formed from the drying of a mud layer more than 3 billion years ago.

“Muir of Ord,” which has a cracked surface. Curiosity Front Hazcam Left B image acquired on Sol 2352, March 19, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech



“The science team is particularly interested in imaging this rock up close because of the fracture patterns. Cracks like these can form from mud drying out when the original sediments were deposited or after exposure of the rock during weathering,” Sumner adds.

If the cracks on Muir of Ord formed when the sediment was first deposited, they tell Mars scientists something about the depositional environment. If they formed during weathering, that informs researchers about the processes on the slopes of Mount Sharp.

Curiosity Mastcam Right photo taken on Sol 2351, March 18, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Planned observations by the rover should help determine which is more likely.

Elemental composition

A recent Curiosity science plan starts with contact science on the “Crieff” target, which is on the top surface of Muir of Ord. The rover’s Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) was slated to perform a short analysis to determine its elemental composition, and the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) will image it at progressively higher magnifications. Doing so allows scientists to study the crack shapes in detail.

Curiosity Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) photo produced on Sol 2352, March 19, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

MAHLI will then image the side of Muir of Ord at a target called “Crossroads” to see how the cracks cross the layering in the rock. Once the contact science is complete, the robot’s Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) will analyze Crieff with a 3×3 grid, and Mastcam will take a mosaic of Muir of Ord.

ChemCam was then set to analyze the targets “James,” “Kilmarnock,” and “Crail” with Mastcam providing context images. Finally, Curiosity will finish up the science at this spot with two more Mastcams of “Aldons Quarry” and “Small Isles.”

New rover drive

The next activity is a roughly 100 foot (30 meters) drive with sequential Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) images to document the large-scale fracture patterns in the outcrop. Once the drive is over, Curiosity’s to-do list includes taking typical post drive images, including both Navcam and Mastcam mosaics of the workspace and the future drive direction.

The second sol of a recently scripted plan includes lots of environmental measurements, Sumner adds. “The morning activities consist of Mastcam imaging of the sun to characterize dust in the atmosphere, a Navcam movie above the horizon to study atmospheric dynamics, and a Navcam movie looking for dust devils.

Curiosity Navcam Right B image taken on Sol 2352, March 19, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Curiosity Navcam Left B image taken on Sol 2352, March 19, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Afternoon activities include a zenith movie to image clouds and their motion, plus a second set of sun images. Geological activities include an Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science (AEGIS), that is, use of the novel autonomy software to analyze a rover-selected target as well as a Mastcam 360° panorama.

“We are looking forward to interpreting all this great new data,” Sumner concludes.

This trio of images acquired by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft shows a wide shot and two close-ups of a region in asteroid Bennu’s northern hemisphere.

The wide-angle image (left), obtained by the spacecraft’s MapCam camera, shows a 590-foot (180-meter) wide area with many rocks, including some large boulders, and a “pond” of regolith that is mostly devoid of large rocks.

The two closer images, obtained by the high-resolution PolyCam camera, show details of areas in the MapCam image, specifically a 50-foot (15 meter) boulder (top) and the regolith pond (bottom). The PolyCam frames are 101 feet (31 meters) across and the boulder depicted is approximately the same size as a humpback whale.

The images were taken on February 25 while the spacecraft was in orbit around Bennu, approximately 1.1 miles (1.8 km) from the asteroid’s surface.

The observation plan for this day provided for one MapCam and two PolyCam images every 10 minutes, allowing for this combination of context and detail of Bennu’s surface.

Date Taken: Feb. 25, 2019

Instrument Used: OCAMS (MapCam and PolyCam)

Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

Credit: Brown University/OrbitBeyond

The Woodlands, Texas – Moon exploration via an ultra-small rover about the size of a printer.

Planetary scientists at Brown University are collaborating with the New Jersey-based company, OrbitBeyond, to plan the scientific mission of a small-scale lunar rover.

The rover was originally designed to compete for the Google Lunar X PRIZE by a team of engineers (TeamIndus) based in India. Now OrbitBeyond plans to launch the rover in 2020.

Late last year, NASA announced nine U.S. companies are eligible to bid on NASA delivery services to the lunar surface through Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) contracts. OrbitBeyond is one of those nine firms.

The project is being presented here at Microsymposium 60, a meeting held here prior to the start of the 50th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC), March 18–22.

This year, an LPSC special focus is on private companies that are working on ways to send payloads — rovers and other cargo — to the Moon.

Credit: OrbitBeyond

Science from scratch

Brown University PhD candidates, Ashley Palumbo and Ariel Deutsch, led a team of students who mapped the tiny rover’s landing area, and set scientific goals for the mission.

“We were able to design specific scientific measurements that OrbitBeyond will be able to acquire with the payload that already existed on this tiny rover,” Palumbo said.

“Essentially what we got to do… is design the scientific aspect of this mission from scratch, which isn’t something that you ever get to do at the education level we’re at right now,” Palumbo said. Toward the end of the class, the students had the chance to present their design reference mission to members of OrbitBeyond.

Deutsch says there are increased opportunities for research, as commercial space exploration companies expand. “It’s allowing people to put more experiments on the Moon, and at the same time it’s also driving down the cost.”

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter image of Moon’s Mare Imbrium region. Credit: Goddard Space Flight Center/Arizona State University

Young volcanic field

The plan calls for the OrbitBeyond rover to land in a relatively young volcanic field in the Moon’s Mare Imbrium region and will use high definition cameras to study the surrounding terrain. The small-scale rover has forward and backward facing cameras, which the team will use to study the lunar terrain.

“By visiting those lava flows from these recent volcanic events, we can learn so much about how volcanism has changed through time, on the Moon,” Palumbo explained.

Scientific output

The Brown University class, taught by Jim Head, a distinguished professor of geological science, combined lectures on lunar evolution with writing a design reference mission for the lunar rover.

The students in Head’s class were tasked with figuring out what science the rover would be capable of doing, given the competition’s constraints.

Head said that, in small groups, students were able to focus on different questions with the goal of optimizing the scientific output of the rover’s mission. Some students evaluated what data to collect, while others looked into the best landing sites from a scientific perspective. Another group, he said, researched how the rover could best navigate the Moon with only a single solar panel as an energy source.

Note: This article is partly based on Sofia Rudin’s The Public’s Radio show, aired here:

Curiosity Front Hazcam Left B image taken on Sol 2347, March 14, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is now performing Sol 2349 tasks.

“Curiosity is back to work after another hiatus due to a computer reset,” reports Scott Guzewich, an atmospheric scientist at NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland

“These sorts of resets do happen from time to time for operating spacecraft and we’re able to enjoy the benefit of two computers to operate the rover by switching to the other one when needed.”

Curiosity Navcam Left B photo taken on Sol 2347, March 14, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

As you’d expect, Guzewich adds, the view from the rover hasn’t changed much lately and the robot’s arm is still poised over the bedrock target “Fife.”

Curiosity Navcam Left B photo taken on Sol 2347, March 14, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Ripple fields

A recent plan has Curiosity performing an Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) integration on Fife before continuing to examine the nearby bedrock including a pebble called “Schiehallion.”

The rover’s Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) and Mastcam will also both study some dune and ripple fields nearby called “Motherwell.”

“Our atmospheric monitoring is also behind schedule,” Guzewich notes, so the plan called for trying to make up for lost time with three measurements of atmospheric opacity in these next two sols, two searches for dust devils, and a Mastcam sky survey where scientists examine the properties of dust particles suspended in the air.

Curiosity ChemCam Remote Micro-Imager photo taken on Sol 2347, March 14, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL

Curiosity Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) photo obtained on Sol 2339, March 6, 2019. MAHLI is located on the turret at the end of the rover’s robotic arm.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Courtesy of NASA/JPL/USGS

Earth’s moon taunts. There is a growing chorus of experts that view this “eighth continent” as a near-by world of natural resources sitting there at the edge of Earth’s gravity well – ready for the picking.

Visionary zeal aside, clarity is step one. Wanted is the right combination of vision, gobs of moon moola, make-it-happen technologies and the political willpower to unchain the Moon’s wealth.

Credit: James Vaughan

A recent report — Commercial Lunar Propellant Architecture: A Collaborative Study of Lunar Propellant Production – has cut to the chase and details what’s needed and what happens next. This appraisal of industry, NASA, lunar scientists, and space lawyers focused on extracting water from the moon’s permanently shadowed regions for use as rocket fuel.

For detailed information, go to the full study at:

Also, my new story on this study is here:

NASA Moon Mining Could Actually Work, with the Right Approach

Image of China’s Yutu-2 lunar rover taken by Chang’e-4 lander.


China’s lunar rover Yutu-2, or Jade Rabbit-2, has driven nearly 540 feet (163 meters) on the Moon’s farside. Controllers on Earth expect the machinery to work longer than its three-month design life.

Both the rover and the lander of the Chang’e-4 lunar probe switched to a dormant mode on Wednesday as the extremely cold lunar night fell, according to the Lunar Exploration and Space Program Center of the China National Space Administration (CNSA).

The Chang’e-4 mission landed in Von Kármán crater within the South Pole-Aitken Basin on January 3.

Farside photo from Yutu-2 rover.

Lightest rover

The nearly 300 pound (135 kilograms) Yutu-2 is the first ever device to drive on the farside, as well as being the lightest rover ever sent to the Moon.

As reported by China’s Xinhua news service, scientists anticipate that Jade Rabbit-2 will travel farther to send more images of the unknown terrain, “listen” to the stories recorded in the ancient lunar rocks, and find more traces of the early history of the Moon and the solar system.

Credit: CSIS


The Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) has issued a new report: Spaceports of the World (1957–2018)

Written by Thomas G. Roberts, program manager and research associate at the CSIS Aerospace Security Project, this report is accompanied by an interactive data repository.

With the rate of space launches projected to grow exponentially in the coming years, spaceports will become an increasingly important to the global space industry.

Which countries and private companies operate the world’s most active spaceports?

Active, inactive spaceports

This report analyzes ground-based space launches from 1957 to 2018, including brief histories of all active and inactive orbital spaceports, 10 year launch records for the 22 spaceports still in use today, and the current status of several proposals to create new facilities capable of supporting orbital space launches.

To download a copy of this very informative report, go to:

Below, use the play button to discover the history of ground-based space launches around the world. Click a spaceport to learn more about its launch history.

This interactive data repository is a product of the Andreas C. Dracopoulos iDeas Lab, the in-house digital, multimedia, and design agency at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Special thanks to Jacque Schrag for her work developing this tool.

Spaceports of the World

Credit: JAXA/Toyota

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and Toyota Motor Corporation (Toyota) have agreed to consider the possibility of collaborating on international space exploration.

As a first step, JAXA and Toyota will accelerate an ongoing joint study of a two-person, pressurized Moon rover.

Two-person vehicle would employ fuel cell electric vehicle technologies.
Credit: JAXA/Toyota

Electric vehicle

The pressurized rover would employ fuel cell electric vehicle technologies, having a total lunar-surface cruising range of more than 6,000 miles (10,000 kilometers).

According to JAXA Vice President, Koichi Wakata, crewed, pressurized rovers will be an important element supporting human lunar exploration, “which we envision will take place in the 2030s. We aim at launching such a rover into space in 2029.”

Moon mobility.
Credit: JAXA/Toyota/Screengrab Inside Outer Space

Space mobility

A pressurized rover that can travel more than 6,000 miles in the lunar environment is a necessity. Toyota’s “space mobility” concept meets such mission requirements. Toyota and JAXA have been jointly studying the concept of a crew-carrying, pressurized rover since May of 2018.

Making tracks.
Credit: JAXA/Toyota/Screengrab Inside Outer Space


The JAXA/Toyota pressurized rover would be about the size of two microbuses:

Length: 20 feet (6.0 meters); width: 17 feet (5.2 meters); height: (12 feet) 3.8 meters and would offer a living space of 13m3. The rover under study would be capable of accommodating two people (four people in an emergency).

Go to this video showcasing the pressurized rover:

Griffith Observatory Event