Archive for March, 2018

Curiosity Navcam Left B image taken on Sol 2004, March 27, 2018.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is now performing Sol 2005 duties.

Reports Abigail Fraeman, a planetary geologist at NASA/JPL in Pasadena, California: A weekend drive stopped after just a few meters due to a high current warning from Curiosity’s right middle wheel.

Curiosity Mastcam Left photo acquired on Sol 2003, March 26, 2018.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

“We were able to assess all of the drive data this morning and decided there wasn’t any real risk to the vehicle. Instead, we just got unlucky because the combination of a small rock and the rover orientation made the middle wheel work a little harder than normal, and this tripped the limit warning,” Fraeman adds. “These things happen occasionally when you are autonomously driving a MINI-cooper sized rover on an entirely different planet!”

Curiosity Navcam Right B image acquired on Sol 2004, March 27, 2018.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Next drive

A new plan was scripted featuring a rover drive that was planned for the weekend.

“We will start by backing up from the area where the weekend drive faulted out, and then continue along our original planned path from the weekend,” Fraeman explained.

Curiosity planning included a very short science block before the drive.

Brick-red rock

Also on tap, investigation of a brick-red rock, “Mousa,” that was turned up by the rover’s wheel using the rover’s Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) and Mastcam multispectral data.

Additionally, the plan called for taking a high resolution Mastcam image of a rock with an interesting texture named “Duncansby Head.”

After the robot’s drive, on the to-do list is taking post-drive images and use of the AEGIS software, or Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science.

Concludes Fraeman: “We are headed to the area on the [Vera Rubin] ridge where we see the clearest orbital signature of hematite. I wonder if the bright red rocks at our feet are an indicator of things to come?”

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Road map

Meanwhile, a new Curiosity traverse map has been issued through Sol 2003.

The map shows the route driven by Curiosity through the 2003 Martian day, or sol, of the rover’s mission on Mars (March 26, 2018).

Numbering of the dots along the line indicate the sol number of each drive. North is up. The scale bar is 1 kilometer (~0.62 mile).

From Sol 1999 to Sol 2003, Curiosity had driven a straight line distance of about 0.37 feet (0.11 meters), bringing the rover’s total odometry for the mission to 11.48 miles (18.47 kilometers).

The base image from the map is from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment Camera (HiRISE) in NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Credit: OSTP

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has released a new report: Protecting & Preserving Apollo Program Lunar Landing Sites & Artifacts.

Credit: NASA


— The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Department of State, and other interested Departments and Agencies, with guidance from the National Space Council, should strategically look for opportunities to leverage lunar missions by and with other Governments and commercial entities to assist in preserving and protecting Apollo lunar artifacts. This effort should also include investigating opportunities to partner on missions with various entities to observe the effect of the lunar environment on different materials used in Apollo lunar artifacts and the artifacts of other States.

— The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, in coordination with the United States Department of State and other interested Departments and Agencies and with guidance from the National Space Council, and other relevant U.S. entities should continue discussions regarding lunar heritage site preservation with foreign space agencies, as appropriate. This effort should include discussion of rights and responsibilities in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty as well as opportunities and challenges shared by space-faring and emerging space countries. Fora for these discussions include the annual International Astronautical Congress, future International Space Exploration fora, the International Space Exploration Coordination Group, the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, and other multilateral and bilateral meetings.

— The United States Department of State, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and other interested Departments and Agencies, with guidance from the National Space Council, and other relevant U.S. entities should investigate the feasibility of working with the international community to develop non-binding best practices for preserving and protecting lunar artifacts on a “reciprocal, transparent, and mutually beneficial” basis.

— The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Department of State, and other interested Departments and Agencies, with guidance from the National Space Council, and other relevant U.S. public and private entities, should discuss the pros and cons of beginning international dialogue on the best ways to mitigate risks presented by future human and robotic exploration to the lunar artifacts of the United States and other countries.

The report is available at:

Credit: The Aerospace Corporation/CORDS



The Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies (CORDS) is making available a reentry dashboard specific to the upcoming fall of China’s Tiangong-1 space lab.

Credit: The Aerospace Corporation/CORDS





Tiangong-1 is now currently predicted to reenter the Earth’s atmosphere around April 1st, plus or minus 2 Days. This prediction was performed by The Aerospace Corporation/CORDS on March 26.


To use the dashboard, go to:

Tiangong-1 Reentry

Note: (Click on image to view full-size image.  Image updated every few minutes. You may need to click on the image and hit refresh in your browser to see the latest image.)


Credit: Fraunhofer FHR

Radar love

Meanwhile, radar specialists at the Fraunhofer FHR in Wachtberg near Bonn, Germany have been monitoring China’s soon-to-reenter Tiangong-1 space lab for a number of weeks with their TIRA (Tracking and Imaging Radar) system. It’s one of the most powerful space observation radars in the world. They are supporting the German Space Situational Awareness Center (WRLageZ) and the European Space Agency with their re-entry forecasts.

Just released radar imagery indicates the Tiangong-1’s rotation speed has increased.

Go to this video view at:

Artist’s view of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) in space, up and operating tackling a full agenda of space science conquests.
Credit: Northrop Grumman



NASA is hosting a media teleconference on the status of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) at 11:30 a.m. EDT Tuesday, March 27.

This update is expected to provide new information regarding delays in launching JWST – what will be the world’s premier infrared space observatory and the largest astronomical science telescope ever built for in-space duties. It is slated to be lofted by Europe’s Ariane-5 booster.


Audio of the call will stream live at this site:

Integration delays

NASA has previously announced that JWST’s launch would be delayed several months, from October 2018 to no later than June 2019, because components of the telescope are taking longer to integrate than planned.

JWST’s combined science instruments and optical element recently completed 100 days of thermal vacuum testing inside NASA Johnson Space Center’s Chamber A. Engineers are seen by the hardware shortly after it emerged from the huge test facility on December 1, 2017.
Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn

Based on the amount of work NASA has to complete before JWST is ready to launch, it’s likely the launch date will be delayed again. If that happens, the project will be at risk of exceeding the $8 billion cost cap set by Congress.

The project’s Standing Review Board recently conducted an independent review of JWST’s schedule status in early 2018 to determine if the June 2019 launch window can be met.

Briefing participants

The briefing participants are:

Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot; Associate Administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) Thomas Zurbuchen; and Deputy Associate Administrator of SMD, Dennis Andrucyk.

Background resources

To read a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) review of JWST, go to this Highlights Page at:

The Full Report can be found at:

Also, take a look at my Scientific American story for details about the JWST:

Is the James Webb Space Telescope “Too Big to Fail?” – Backers of NASA’s next great observatory contemplate its worst-case scenarios

For a video look at JWST, go to the Northrop Grumman overview published on Jan 24, 2017 at:

Vehicle overview: Falcon 1, Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy and BFR.
Credit: SpaceX

Elon Musk, CEO and Lead Designer at SpaceX, presents the updated design for the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), in a summary article published in New Space, a peer-reviewed journal from Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., publishers.

The article is available free on the New Space website.

The article is a summary of Musk’s presentation at the 68th International Astronautical Congress.

Business case

Musk not only provides details on the BFR’s updated design but, importantly, presents a plan for how to pay for it. He describes the development of a huge carbon fiber tank that is capable of holding the cryogenic liquid oxygen needed to fuel the rocket, and the key to the SpaceX business case, how on orbit refueling will take place.

Deep cryo liquid oxygen tank developed by SpaceX.
Credit: SpaceX

The article also reports on progress toward perfecting propulsive landing and achieving rendezvous and docking. Included is information on the changes to the vehicle as its design has evolved, and the dramatic differences in payload capabilities between previous and current versions of the vehicle and BFR designs.

Near-term science goals

BFR engines.
Credit: SpaceX

“Elon’s description of the Big Falcon Rocket, along with the stunning recent success of the Falcon 9 Heavy indicates just how far SpaceX has come in establishing the elements needed to dramatically lower the cost for deep space exploration,” says Editor-in-Chief Scott Hubbard, Stanford University.

“I look forward to seeing SpaceX contribute to human exploration as well as near-term science goals like the Mars Sample Return,” Hubbard adds in a statement.



To read “Making Life Multi-Planetary,” go to:

U.S. President Donald Trump holds up the Space Policy Directive – 1 after signing it, directing NASA to return to the Moon, alongside members of the Senate, Congress, NASA, and commercial space companies in the Roosevelt room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Dec. 11, 2017.
Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

President Donald J. Trump has unveiled an “America First” National Space Strategy.

Under the rubric of “Infrastructure and Technology” the Fact Sheet was issued on: March 23, 2018.

“Our travels beyond the Earth propel scientific discoveries that improve our lives in countless ways here, right here, at home: powering vast new industry, spurring incredible new technology, and providing the space security we need to protect the American people.” – President Donald J. Trump

As outlined in the Fact Sheet, there are four pillars for a unified approach. “President Donald J. Trump’s new National Space Strategy drives a whole-of-government approach to United States leadership in space, in close partnership with the private sector and our allies, and is based on four essential pillars.

To read the White House Fact Sheet, go to:

Curiosity Front Hazcam Right B image acquired on Sol 2000, March 23, 2018.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is wrapping up Sol 2001 duties.

Controllers operating the robot put together Sol 2001 activities listening to a rousing rendition of “Also sprach Zarathustra” – the signature song from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Reports Abigail Fraeman, planetary geologist at NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, that inspirational music motivated them to pick two new target names that were as close to A Space Odyssey as they could get: “Boddam” for David Bowman (the mission commander of the Discovery 1) and “Kirkcudbright” for the movie’s director, Stanley Kubrick.

Curioisty Navcam Left B photo acquired on Sol 2000, March 23, 2018.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Steep outcrop

“Curiosity is currently sitting in front of a steep outcrop that shows some interesting geologic relationships between rocks in the Vera Rubin Ridge. We acquired some great images of these rocks,” Fraeman notes, so the focus has been on understanding the properties of those rocks.

View of rover’s workspace taken by Curioisty Mastcam Left on Sol 1999, March 22, 2018.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

In the first sol of the plan, sol 2001, the plan called for collecting Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) photos of a target named “Apin,” and doing Dust Removal Tool (DRT), MAHLI, and Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) tasks on a target named “Brora.”

Vertical rocks

The second sol, sol 2002, will focus on remote sensing, with Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) observations on targets named Boddam, “Sgurr of Eigg,” and Kirkcudbright.

The ChemCam observations will be accompanied by Mastcam documentation images. Multispectral observation of the DRT targets from Brora and Sgurr of Eigg are to be done, some multispectral images of the landscape in front of the rover, and some additional color images of vertical rocks in front of Curiosity to complement previously collected data.

“We’ll top off the science block with a dust devil movie and dust devil survey. We’ll stay up after dark on sol 2002 to collect additional nighttime MAHLI images of Appin and Brora,” Fraeman explains.

Dust Removal Tool (DRT) is viewed by Curiosity Mastcam Right camera. Image taken on Sol 2000, March 23, 2018.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS


Distant features

On sol 2003, the plans calls for taking dedicated environmental science measurements, including a tau to measure the dust in the atmosphere, a Navcam 360 sky survey, a Navcam zenith and suprahorizon movies, and a crater rim extinction image.

Also part of the plan is producing another ChemCam remote micro-imager (RMI) mosaic of distant features on Mt. Sharp.

Curiosity Navcam Right B image acquired on Sol 1999, March 22, 2018.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech




Spectral signatures

Sol 2003 will finish with the robot driving roughly 165 feet (50 meters) towards an area “where we see some of the strongest spectral signatures of hematite on the ridge in orbital data,” Fraeman points out.

A standard set of post-drive images will be taken over the weekend to set Mars researchers up to characterize the new location in the sol 2004 plan.

“It will be very exciting,” Fraeman concludes, “to see the exact rocks that are the source of the orbital signature which helped us realize the importance of Vera Rubin Ridge over five years ago!”

Credit: The Aerospace Corporation/CORDS


The reentry of China’s Tiangong-1’s is being closely monitored by The Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Orbital and Debris Reentry Studies (CORDS).

Currently, the space station is predicted to reenter Earth’s atmosphere around April 1, 2018, plus or minus 4 days.

Credit: The Aerospace Corporation/CORDS

However, due to the uncertainties involved, it is very difficult to predict the exact timing of any space object reentry.

Sources of uncertainty

According to CORDS, sources of uncertainty include:

  • significant variation in the density of the upper layers of the atmosphere
  • orientation of the spacecraft over time
  • physical properties of the spacecraft, including the exact mass and material composition
  • exact location and speed of the space station

“When aggregated, these factors translate into a reentry timing uncertainty that is roughly 20 percent of the “time to go”—the time remaining between the date of the prediction and the predicted date of reentry,” notes a CORDS update.

Credit: The Aerospace Corporation/CORDS

Surviving debris

Tiangong-1 will reenter somewhere between the latitudes of 43° north and south, and any surviving reentry debris will most likely fall into an ocean.

“The odds of space debris hitting you are less than one in 1 trillion. Surviving debris from Tiangong-1 might be carrying or be comprised of toxic materials. CORDS experts advise that it is best to not touch any space debris or breathe in any vapors it may release,” according to the orbital debris and reentry study group.

Credit: The Aerospace Corporation/CORDS

Visibility conditions

What can a ground observer see?

Incandescent objects during this reentry may be visible and will likely last up to a minute or more, depending on time of day, visibility conditions, and the observer’s location.

Go to this informative video regarding the upcoming reentry, made available by The Aerospace Corporation/CORDS.

Go to:

Curiosity Front Hazcam Right B image acquired on Sol 2000, March 23, 2018.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


NASA’s Curiosity robot on Mars has reached 2000 Martian Days of Red Planet roving, reports Christopher Edwards, a planetary geologist at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.

“Our trusty Martian rover has spent 2000 sols exploring Gale Crater helping to unravel the geologic history preserved in the rocks,” Edwards explains. “We’ve observed a huge variety of past environments ranging from conglomerate rocks that indicate flowing surface water to mudstones that document a time when Gale crater contained an ancient lake.”

Curiosity Navcam Left B photo taken on Sol 2000, March 23, 2018.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Strong signature

Curiosity is continuing its exploration of past environments preserved within Gale crater, further examining the Vera Rubin Ridge. The rover is continuing to make its way to the location where the strongest orbital signature of hematite is observed, Edwards notes.

Curiosity Mastcam Left image acquired on Sol 1999, March 22, 2018.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS



A recent plan has Curiosity carrying out remote sensing activities to examine layering in the rocks, as well as contact science on the target dubbed “Sgurr of Eigg” to characterize the unit’s chemistry and fine-scale morphology. “We’ll continue these types of activities over the weekend plan,” Edwards adds, “to refine our understanding of this workspace.”

Curiosity ChemCam Remote Micro-Imager photo taken on Sol 2000, March 23, 2018.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL






Road map

A new traverse map has been issued showing the route driven by Curiosity through the 1999 Martian day, or sol, of the rover’s mission on Mars (March 22, 2018).

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Numbering of the dots along the line indicate the sol number of each drive. North is up. The scale bar is 1 kilometer (~0.62 mile).

From Sol 1998 to Sol 1999, Curiosity had driven a straight line distance of about 50.39 feet (15.36 meters), bringing the rover’s total odometry for the mission to 11.48 miles (18.47 kilometers).

The base image from the map is from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment Camera (HiRISE) in NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.


Tiangong-1 altitude decay forecast as of March 21.
Credit: ESA


The latest reentry forecast for China’s Tiangong-1 space lab has been provided by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Space Debris Office in Darmstadt, Germany.

In a March 21 update, the Tiangong-1 reentry window forecast is now roughly March 30 to roughly April 2, with the Space Debris Office noting that this is highly variable.

Credit: The Aerospace Corporation/CORDS

Tiangong-1 was lofted in late September 2011. The first Chinese orbital docking occurred between Tiangong-1 and an unpiloted Shenzhou spacecraft on November 2, 2011. Two piloted missions were completed to visit Tiangong-1: Shenzhou 9 and Shenzhou 10.

Docking of China’s Shenzhou 10 spacecraft with the Tiangong-1 space station June 13, 2013.
Credit: CCTV



Test campaign

Meanwhile, ESA will serve as host and administrator of a test campaign regarding the reentry of China’s space lab, conducted by the Inter Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC).

IADC comprises space debris and other experts from 13 space agencies/organizations, including NASA, ESA, European national space agencies, Japan’s JAXA, India’s ISRO, Korea’s KARI, Russia’s Roscosmos and the China National Space Administration.

IADC members will use the fall of Tiangong-1 to conduct their annual reentry test campaign, during which participants will pool their predictions of the time window, as well as their respective tracking datasets obtained from radar and other sources. The aim is to cross-verify, cross-analyze and improve the prediction accuracy for all members.

Artist’s view of Tiangong space lab
Credit: CMSE

Two modules

There are two modules that compose Tiangong-1: A habitable experimental module and a resources module. It has a habitable volume of 15 cubic meters and is equipped with sleep stations for astronauts.

The space lab’s mass at launch was over 9 tons (18,740 pounds; 8,500 kilograms).Tiangong-1’s length is 34 feet (10.5 meters) and sports a diameter of 11 feet (3.4 meters) It is outfitted with two solar panels that are roughly 7 meters by 3 meters.

There is a chance that a small amount of Tiangong-1 debris may survive reentry and impact the Earth’s surface. Should this happen, any surviving debris would fall within a region that is a few hundred kilometers in size and centered along a point on the Earth that the station passes over. The map below shows the relative probabilities of debris landing within a given region. Yellow indicates locations that have a higher probability while green indicates areas of lower probability. Blue areas have zero probability of debris reentry since Tiangong-1 does not fly over these areas (north of 42.7° N latitude or south of 42.7° S latitude). These zero probability areas constitute about a third of the total Earth’s surface area.
Credit: The Aerospace Corporation’s CORDS

Where on Earth?

As to where on Earth Tiangong-1’s will reenter, that’s an unknown. But given the spacecraft’s inclination, this object will reenter somewhere between 43° North and 43° South latitudes.

Owing to the Chinese station’s mass and construction materials, there is a distinct possibility that some portions of Tiangong-1 will survive and reach the Earth’s surface.