Archive for October, 2017

Credit: NASA


The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued a new space report, looking at NASA’s development of three programs to put astronauts into space and beyond low Earth orbit, eventually to Mars: the Orion crew vehicle, Space Launch System, and Exploration Ground Systems.

GAO notes that all 3 programs must work together.

Oversight challenges

The approach that NASA is using to integrate its three human spaceflight programs into one system ready for launch offers some benefits, “but it also introduces oversight challenges,” the report stresses.

To manage and integrate the three programs—the Space Launch System (SLS) vehicle; the Orion crew capsule; and supporting ground systems (EGS)—NASA’s Exploration Systems Development (ESD) organization is using a more streamlined approach than has been used with other programs, and officials GAO spoke with believe that this approach provides cost savings and greater efficiency.

NASA’s Space Launch System.
Credit: NASA

However, GAO found two key challenges to the approach:

  • The approach makes it difficult to assess progress against cost and schedule baselines. SLS and EGS are baselined only to the first test flight. In May 2014, GAO recommended that NASA baseline the programs’ cost and schedule beyond the first test flight. NASA has not implemented these recommendations nor does it plan to; hence, it is contractually obligating billions of dollars for capabilities for the second flight and beyond without establishing baselines necessary to measure program performance.
  • The approach has dual-hatted positions, with individuals in two programmatic engineering and safety roles also performing oversight of those areas. As the image below shows, this presents an environment of competing interests.

Cost, Schedule Pressures

“We found challenges in NASA’s approach to integrating these programs,” GAO reports. For example, the technical authorities for engineering and safety also have program roles that include managing resources. When technical authorities must also deal with cost and schedule pressures, it can potentially impair their independence, the report continues.

“The Columbia Accident Investigation Board found in 2003 that this type of tenuous balance between programmatic and technical pressures was a contributing factor to that Space Shuttle accident,” the GAO report adds.

Credit: NASA

Pathway to Mars

NASA is at the beginning of the path leading to human exploration of Mars, explains the GAO report. The first phase along that path, the integration of SLS, Orion, and EGS, is likely to set the stage “for the success or failure of the rest of the endeavor.”

Establishing a cost and schedule baseline for NASA’s second mission is an important initial step in understanding and gaining support for the costs of SLS, Orion, and EGS, not just for that one mission but for the Mars plan overall. NASA’s ongoing refusal to establish this baseline is short-sighted, GAO points out, because Exploration Mission -2 (EM-2) is part of a larger conversation about the affordability of a crewed mission to Mars.

“While later stages of the Mars mission are well in the future, getting to that point in time will require a funding commitment from the Congress and other stakeholders. Much of their willingness to make that commitment is likely to be based on the ability to assess the extent to which NASA has met prior goals within predicted cost and schedule targets,” the GAO report points out.


To access this GAO report — Integration Approach Presents Challenges to Oversight and Independence (GAO-18-28: Published: Oct 19, 2017), and NASA’s responses, go to:

Also, give a listen to this podcast that highlights the findings of the GAO report:

Curiosity Mastcam Left image acquired on Sol 1850, October 20, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Now in Sol 1852, NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is continuing its scientific sleuthing in a target-rich setting on the Red Planet.

Reports Ken Herkenhoff, a planetary geologist at the USGS in Flagstaff, Arizona, the robot drove over 65 feet (20 meters) on Sol 1850, wheeling into an area with lots of bedrock exposed.

“We had several nice targets to choose from, but were limited in what we could plan because we want to prepare for a SAM evolved gas analysis (EGA) of sand from “Ogunquit Beach,” which requires significant power,” Herkenhoff notes.

SAM stands for Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) Instrument Suite.

Curiosity Mastcam Right image taken on Sol 1850, October 19, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS


Mars time

Scientists planned two sols to become synced back up with “Mars time” on Monday, so the rover will not be driving this weekend.

“Despite the power constraints,” Herkenhoff adds, “we were able to plan a lot of activities today.”

Sol 1852 will start with using the robot’s Navcam to search for clouds and dust devils, followed by Mastcam mosaics of the expected path ahead (southward).

The path ahead as observed by Curiosity’s Navcam Left B camera on Sol 1850, October 20, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


Then Curiosity’s Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) and Right Mastcam will observe bedrock target “Balfour” and a block named “Ripon.”

Laser cleaning

Also on tap is use of the rover’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) to acquire a full suite of images of Balfour before the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) is placed on the target for an overnight integration.

“We considered brushing Balfour before examining it with MAHLI and APXS, but to save time/power we decided not to. The ChemCam laser often cleans dust off of the surface of rock targets, so we’re hoping that will suffice on Balfour,” Herkenhoff explains.

Curiosity Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) photo acquired on Sol 1850, October 19, 2017. MAHLI is located on the turret at the end of the rover’s robotic arm.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Sample drop-off

On Sol 1853, the long-awaited drop-off of the Ogunquit Beach sample to SAM is planned.

“This activity was delayed by the drill anomaly and the testing that followed, so we are excited to be planning it today,” Herkenhoff concludes. If all goes well, the SAM EGA will take place this coming Monday.


A permanent human settlement on the Moon via Hawaii is being blueprinted.

Held earlier this month, an International MoonBase Summit (IMS) brought together representatives from academia, government and the private sector to help lay the groundwork for a base on the lunar surface.

“Because of its geography, geology and culture, Hawaii is the perfect place to build a MoonBase prototype,” explains Henk Rogers, an entrepreneur based in Hawaii and the organizer of the IMS.

Key issues

Working groups at the Summit, held October 1-5 on Hawaii island, focused on addressing key issues in the areas of:

  • commercialization and business dynamics for economic success
  • organizational structure and public-private partnership models
  • design and architectural principles
  • cultural and philosophical guidelines for planetary settlement
  • geological/geographic considerations for location of the International MoonBase (IMB) and its terrestrial analog
  • surface systems to build and operate the IMB
  • public engagement and educational opportunities

Summit decisions

Meeting participants included Apollo 11 moonwalker, Buzz Aldrin. He encouraged the development of the International MoonBase as a valuable gateway to Mars during his keynote address.

Inside look at one idea the European Space Agency is exploring in its formulation of a “Moon Village” that incorporates 3D printing.
Credit: ESA/ Foster + Partners

Three key decisions resulting from the summit are:

  1. The International MoonBase will be located close to one of the moon’s poles to enable access to the abundant lunar resources that exist there;
  2. The terrestrial analog for the International MoonBase will be located on Hawaii island to take advantage of the island’s many features that mimic the lunar surface;
  3. The Mahina Lani Simulator is envisioned to be funded by an innovative, self-sustaining model.

A Master Plan, scheduled to be drafted in the spring of 2018, will also include a large number of issues that will be the subject of trade studies in the months ahead.

Furthermore, a 3-D model of the International MoonBase is in development that will provide the public with a high-fidelity look at the layout of the base.

For more information, go to:


The Marius Hills Skylight, as observed by the Japanese SELENE/Kaguya research team.
Image Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

A comfy room on the Moon to protect explorers may be a large open lava tube in the Marius Hills region.

That’s the deep dive finding of a new study using radar data collected by a Japanese lunar orbiter — the SELENE spacecraft – and used to detect underlying lava tubes. SELENE was launched in September 2007, and was purposely crashed on the Moon in June 2009.

Japan’s SELENE Moon explorer.
Credit: JAXA

Radar data

A study of the SELENE radar data indicates, near the Marius Hills Skylight, an entrance to the tube, scientists found a distinctive echo pattern: a decrease in echo power followed by a large second echo peak, which researchers believe is evidence of a tube. The two echoes correspond to radar reflections from the moon’s surface and the floor and ceiling of the open tube.

The work has been published in Geophysical Research Letters.

Gravity data

Teaming up with the Japanese researchers, Purdue University experts tapped into data gleaned by NASA’s twin orbiters of the GRAIL mission that collected high-quality data on the Moon’s gravitational field.

Launched as GRAIL A and GRAIL B in September 2011, the probes, renamed Ebb and Flow, operated in a nearly circular orbit near the poles of the moon at an altitude of about 34 miles (55 kilometers) until their mission ended in December 2012, also purposely trashed on the Moon.

NASA’s twin GRAIL probes.
Credit: NASA

Jay Melosh, a GRAIL co-investigator at Purdue University, explains in a press statement: “Our group at Purdue used the gravity data over that area to infer that the opening was part of a larger system. By using this complimentary technique of radar, they were able to figure out how deep and high the cavities are.”

Spacious housing

The city of Philadelphia is shown inside a theoretical lunar lava tube.
Credit: Purdue University/David Blair

The upshot from the subsurface look-sees: Marius Hills is spacious enough to house one of the United States’ largest cities, if the gravity results are correct.

The existence of lava tubes on the Moon has been speculated in the past. But in combining radar and gravity data the result provides the clearest picture of what they look like and how big these features could be.

For information on “Detection of intact lava tubes at Marius Hills on the Moon by SELENE (Kaguya) Lunar Radar Sounder” go to:

Curiosity Navcam Left B image taken on Sol 1843, October 12, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover, now in Sol 1845, has been playing a “game of inches,” reports Michelle Minitti, a planetary geologist at Framework in Silver Spring, Maryland.

“There’s a line in the halftime scene of the movie ‘Any Given Sunday’ that ‘life’s this game of inches…the margin for error is so small.’ The same is true on Mars,” Minitti explains.

Rock obstacle

On Sol 1843, Curiosity began a drive with a turn to the right. But the robot’s right rear wheel encountered a small ridge – a few inches of rock offering just enough resistance to cause the rover to stop the drive and wait for further instructions.

“The unexpected obstacle gave Curiosity a fourth planning sol at this location which the team used to add to their collection of bedrock measurements from the workspace,” Minitti adds.

Curiosity Navcam Left B image taken on Sol 1843, October 12, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Workspace targets

The “Bulawayo” target offered one of the least-dusty surfaces in the workspace, a gray, finely-layered and vertical rock face that made a tempting target for Curiosity’s Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam) device.

ChemCam also laser shot “Bushveld,” a wind-sculpted expanse of bedrock dotted with small, resistant features.

Not far from Bushveld, and adjacent to Sol 1838’s “Duitschland” target, both the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) and the rover’s Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) studied bedrock target “Stormberg.”

Curiosity Navcam Left B image taken on Sol 1843, October 12, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Chemical differences

“Having APXS analyses from both Stormberg and Duitschland in close proximity,” Minitti points out, “provides the opportunity to tease out small chemical differences between the targets.”

After Curiosity frees itself from the obstacle by the right rear wheel, the plan calls for a roughly 65 feet (20 meters) drive continuing up the “Vera Rubin Ridge.”

Post-drive, the plan calls for the rover to acquire an automatically-targeted ChemCam analysis and a third Chemistry & Mineralogy X-Ray Diffraction/X-Ray Fluorescence Instrument (CheMin) integration of the “Ogunquit Beach” sand sample.

Curiosity Mastcam Left photo acquired on Sol 1843, October 12, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

“Each CheMin integration brings the mineralogy of the Ogunquit Beach sample into sharper and sharper focus,” Minitti adds.

Dust devil, cloud movies

The majority of the environmental monitoring observations also happen post-drive, including acquisition of mid-afternoon dust devil and cloud movies and a Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) active measurement.

Minitti concludes: “Here’s hoping the inches break our way this weekend!”

Credit: Lujendra Ojha, et al.

New research suggests that recurring slope lineae (RSL) on Mars might be causing landslides, and/or the landslides are being sparked by ice-clouds.

RSL are dark, fingerlike features that creep down steep Martian slopes in warm weather and continue to puzzle scientists.

“Seasonal Slumps in Juventae Chasma, Mars” has been published in the American Geophysical Union’s Journal of Geophysical Research – Planets, new work led by Lujendra Ojha in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland.

Seasonal slumps

Ojha and his colleagues have detected dark topographic slumps several meters wide, tens of meters in length and up to a meter in depth on the slopes of Juventae Chasma in Valles Marineris.

These slumps usually originate near the terminal points of RSL. Near their initiation points, the slumps have topographic depressions due to the removal of materials; near their lowermost reaches, new materials are deposited in lobes.

Over the course of three Mars years, ten active slumps have been observed in that area, all of which formed in or near the same season.

Credit: Lujendra Ojha, et al.

Onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), the spacecraft’s Mars Color Imager (MARCI) show low-altitude atmospheric obscurations confined within the topography of the Valles Marineris and Juventae Chasma in the seasons when the slumps form.

Water ice

In one instance, data from the MRO’s Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) and MARCI show evidence of water ice in the atmospheric obscuration – likely due to the formation of a low-level afternoon cloud above a dust storm, or mixing of condensate clouds with a diffuse dust cloud, the research team reports.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
Credit: NASA

“The presence of atmospheric obscurations with H2O ice near times when the slumps form is intriguing, but no direct evidence currently exists to support that they aid in slump formation,” they report.

Further monitoring of this site, the investigators conclude, will help establish if RSL and/or atmospheric events play a role in the creation of contemporary slumps.

The research paper is available here at:

Credit: OneWeb

The respected space consulting firm, Euroconsult, reports that 300 satellites with a mass over 50 kilograms will be launched on average each year by 2026 for government agencies and commercial organizations worldwide.

This onslaught into the heavens is “a new paradigm” in the space industry with small satellites and mega constellations of spacecraft – a threefold increase over the past decade.

Small satellites

“The space industry is undergoing a massive change in volume as cubesats/nanosats and the large constellations of small satellites have begun to revolutionize satellite design, testing and production, and launch as well, as illustrated by OneWeb,” said Rachel Villain, Principal Advisor at Euroconsult and editor of the report, Satellites to be Built & Launched by 2026.

Villain adds, however, “it remains to be seen how these new satellite concepts will incentivize demand for satellite services on Earth through lower costs, especially considering that, ultimately, the cost of ownership for satellite services also includes a large investment on the ground.”

Credit: OneWeb

Billions and billions…of dollars

The 3,000 satellites over 50 kilograms to be launched over 2017–2026 should represent a market of $304 billion for the space industry in terms of building and launching, an average of $30 billion per year (up 25% over past decade), explains a Euroconsult press statement. A price decrease is visible in this core market of the space industry, driven by 23 commercial constellations launching a total of 1,800 small satellites (of which about 1,000 for OneWeb) into low or medium Earth orbits for communications or Earth observation.

According to Euroconsult, over three quarters of the future space market remains with Governments; the 1,000 satellites to be launched for civilian and military agencies in 60 countries will represent a market of $239 billion.

Government market

Governments dominate the space industry as established space countries replace and expand their in-orbit satellite systems, and more countries acquire their first operational satellite systems, usually for communications, Earth observation and imagery intelligence.

Over 85% of the government market will remain concentrated in the 10 countries with an established space industry (the U.S., Russia, China, Japan, India and the top five European countries). Still, the other 50 countries engaged in space activities will launch almost 200 satellites, twice the number they launched over the past 10 years. Over half of these 200 satellites will be procured from foreign manufacturers as domestic industry capabilities develop in these countries.

Credit: Euroconsult

Commercial sector

In the commercial space sector, Euroconsult believes that about 2,000 satellites will be launched over the decade, of which about half solely for OneWeb. Almost two-thirds of the commercial space market of $65 billion will remain concentrated in geostationary orbit, the destination of 150 new satellites for communications and broadcasting services.

The 1,800 satellites to be launched into non-geostationary orbits for the 23 constellations to collect or transport data should represent a market of $2 billion per year on average over the decade.

For more information on the report and other studies, go to:

Credit: Felix & Paul Studios




The latest project from Emmy Award-winning Felix & Paul Studios, Space Explorers lets you reach new heights through the power of VR.



Created in partnership with NASA, the experience follows their astronauts as they prepare to launch into space—and its coming to Gear VR and Rift in early 2018.

Credit: Felix & Paul Studios









Go to this trailer at:

To explore their previous works, go to:

Image composition of the European Southern Observatories (ESO).
Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

The European Southern Observatory (ESO) has announced it will hold a press conference on October 16, 2017 at 16:00 CEST [14:00 UTC], at its headquarters in Garching, Germany, to present “groundbreaking observations of an astronomical phenomenon that has never been witnessed before.” This is an “unprecedented discovery” the ESO statement notes.

To keep eye and ear out for this ESO announcement, go to:

Curiosity Navcam Left B image acquired on Sol 1839, October 8, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is now in Sol 1841.

Mark Salvatore, a planetary geologist from the University of Michigan in Dearborn, reports that a communications snafu has created an irksome problem in the rover’s performing of scientific duties.

“When you take a step back and think about all of the things that must go right in order to perform scientific investigations on the surface of Mars, it’s hard to believe that we ever get things accomplished! It also means that seemingly minor issues can lead to significant delays and complications when it comes to developing science plans, commanding the rover, and gathering the collected data,” Salvatore notes. “Today was one of those instances when a seemingly minor issue here on Earth significantly influenced our abilities on Mars.”

Curiosity Front Hazcam Right B image taken on Sol 1840, October 9, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


The problem occurred when communications and data transfer was disrupted between Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the team that commands the majority of the high resolution cameras, including the robot’s Mastcam, MAHLI, and MARDI. The disruption took place as the science team was gathering to select targets of interest and to populate a block of time dedicated to science with observations and analyses.

Curiosity Rear Hazcam Right B image acquired on Sol 1840, October 9, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Salvatore adds that “this often happens to me when I’m trying to watch my New York Mets play baseball, so I know just how frustrating it can be!”

Scientists are in a “restricted” planning mode this week, so the science plan will cover two Mars days.

Two targets

That plan calls for Curiosity to analyze two targets in front of the rover, “Bokkeveld” and “Buffalo Spring,” using the Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) active laser system to assess the makeup of these two targets.

“Buffalo Spring has a nodular texture, not unlike some interesting targets observed on Vera Rubin Ridge over the last few weeks. Bokkeveld is a “typical” bedrock target, which will help us to understand just how different Buffalo Spring is relative to more typical basaltic targets,” Salvatore points out.

Drill diagnostics

Curiosity will undergo additional drill diagnostics to assess all of the engineering work to get the drill capabilities back to the science team.

Curiosity Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), located on the turret at the end of the rover’s robotic arm, acquired this image on Sol 1838, October 7, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Also on tap is using the robot’s Navcam cameras to identify and monitor local clouds. Then the ChemCam will make an automated measurement of a nearby rocky target as well as its titanium calibration target. Curiosity’s Navcam cameras will image the surroundings and search for local dust devils.

No driving

The rover’s Chemistry & Mineralogy X-Ray Diffraction/X-Ray Fluorescence Instrument (CheMin) is slated to be programmed to perform a second analysis on the previously collected Ogunquit Beach sediment sample and retrieve the data the following day, Salvatore adds.

Curiosity Mastcam Left image taken on Sol 1839, October 8, 2017.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS


There is no drive scheduled during the rover’s two-day plan. Therefore, the science team will have the same view on Wednesday as they do today. “Hopefully on Wednesday,” Salvatore concludes, “we will be able to utilize all of the imaging capabilities of the rover, finish analyzing the local surroundings, and continue to make forward progress towards the top of Vera Rubin Ridge!”