Archive for June, 2019

NASA’s InSight Mars lander acquired this Sol 203, June 23 image using its robotic arm-mounted, Instrument Deployment Camera (IDC).
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Scientists and engineers are moving forward with a new plan for getting NASA InSight’s heat probe, also known as the “mole,” digging again on Mars.

NASA’s InSight Mars lander acquired this image of the area in front of the lander using its lander-mounted, Instrument Context Camera (ICC). Image acquired on June 23, 2019, Sol 203.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Part of an instrument called the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3), the mole is a self-hammering spike designed to dig as much as 16 feet (5 meters) below the surface and record temperature.

But the Germany-provided mole hasn’t been able to dig deeper than about 12 inches (30 centimeters) below the Martian surface since Feb. 28, 2019.

The self-hammering mole, part of the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) on NASA’s InSight lander, was only partially buried in the soil of Mars as of early June 2019, as shown in this illustration.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/DLR

Engineers in a Mars-like test area at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory try possible strategies to aid the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) on NASA’s InSight lander, using engineering models of the lander, robotic arm and instrument.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The device’s support structure blocks the lander’s cameras from viewing the mole, so the team is using InSight’s robotic arm to lift the structure out of the way. Depending on what they see, the team might use InSight’s robotic arm to help the mole further later this summer.

Curiosity Mastcam Right photo acquired on Sol 2443, June 21, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS



NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is now performing Sol 2445 duties.

An evolving story is that the Mars machinery has once again detected whiffs of methane – perhaps tied to microbes presently resident on the Red Planet.

“Mars, it appears, is belching a large amount of a gas that could be a sign of microbes living on the planet today,” reported the New York Times on Saturday, June 22.

Responds Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA Associate Administrator of the Science Mission Directorate: “While increased methane levels measured by Curiosity are exciting, as possible indicators for life, it’s important to remember this is an early science result. To maintain scientific integrity, the science team will continue to analyze the data before confirming results.”

Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument.

Follow-up studies

The robot detected the atmospheric methane using its Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument. This detection reportedly has called for follow-up studies with results of new observations expected on Monday.

The SAM instrument suite takes up more than half the science payload on board the rover. Provided by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, SAM features chemical equipment found in many scientific laboratories on Earth and searches for compounds of the element carbon — including methane — that are associated with life and explores ways in which they are generated and destroyed in the Martian ecosphere.

June 2018 graphic relates that SAM detected seasonal changes in atmospheric methane in Gale Crater.
Credit: NASA/JPL

Seasonal changes

Back in June 2018, NASA announced that SAM detected seasonal changes in atmospheric methane in Gale Crater. The methane signal has been observed for nearly three Martian years (nearly six Earth years), peaking each summer.

In a press statement from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the fact that Curiosity detected last week unusually high methane levels, the finding is characterized as a surprising result: “The largest amount of methane ever measured during the mission — about 21 parts per billion units by volume (ppbv). One ppbv means that if you take a volume of air on Mars, one billionth of the volume of air is methane.”

Sample inlet (one open) of the rover’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

“Curiosity doesn’t have instruments that can definitively say what the source of the methane is, or even if it’s coming from a local source within Gale Crater or elsewhere on the planet.”

Explains SAM Principal Investigator Paul Mahaffy of NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland: “With our current measurements, we have no way of telling if the methane source is biology or geology, or even ancient or modern.”

Picture perfect: A selfie taken by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover on Sol 2291 (January 15) at the “Rock Hall” drill site, located on Vera Rubin Ridge.
This was Curiosity’s 19th drill site. The drill hole is visible to the rover’s lower-left.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

According to the JPL press statement: “The Curiosity team has detected methane many times over the course of the mission. Previous papers have documented how background levels of the gas seem to rise and fall seasonally. They’ve also noted sudden spikes of methane, but the science team knows very little about how long these transient plumes last or why they’re different from the seasonal patterns.”

The SAM team organized a different experiment for this past weekend to gather more information on what might be a transient plume. “Whatever they find — even if it’s an absence of methane — will add context to the recent measurement.”

Artist’s impression of the European Space Agency’s ExoMars 2016 Trace Gas Orbiter at the Red Planet..
Credit:ESA/ATG medialab

ESA collaboration

Lastly, the JPL statement explains that Curiosity’s scientists need time to analyze these clues and conduct many more methane observations.

“They also need time to collaborate with other science teams, including those with the European Space Agency’s Trace Gas Orbiter, which has been in its science orbit for a little over a year without detecting any methane. Combining observations from the surface and from orbit could help scientists locate sources of the gas on the planet and understand how long it lasts in the Martian atmosphere. That might explain why the Trace Gas Orbiter’s and Curiosity’s methane observations have been so different.”

Meanwhile, the rover Curiosity is examining the outcrop on top of “Teal Ridge,” described as a “spectacular sedimentary outcrop,” by Abigail Fraeman, a planetary geologist at NASA/JPL in Pasadena, California.

Go to the New York Times story here:

Curiosity Front Hazcam Left B photo taken on Sol 2444, June 22, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is now performing Sol 2444 science duties.

Abigail Fraeman, a planetary geologist at NASA/JPL in Pasadena, California reports: “Curiosity is still parked at a tilt of a little over 23˚ to examine the outcrop on top of ‘Teal Ridge.’”  

Curiosity Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) observation of Beauly. Photo produced on June 19 2019, Sol 2441.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The rover’s science team has begun to pore over all the data received on Earth, and also simultaneously developed a busy plan to continue investigation of this spectacular sedimentary outcrop.

Curiosity Navcam Left B photo acquired on Sol 2444, June 22, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Finely layered target

The main activities in the sol 2443 plan was to use the robot’s Dust Removal Tool (DRT), the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), and its Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) to observe a finely layered target named “Beauly,” which was imaged with MAHLI on sol 2441.

Curiosity ChemCam Remote Micro-Imager photo taken on Sol 2443, June 21, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL

“We will also take a MAHLI and APXS observation of a second target named ‘Balnakettle.’ Outside of the contact science observations, Curiosity will take two change detection images of a target called ‘Sandyhills,’ and a 10×2 stereo Mastcam mosaic towards an area Curiosity will be driving through soon that the team has informally dubbed the ‘Visionarium’ in anticipation of the bedrock exposures that will be visible,” Fraeman adds.

Curiosity MAHLI image produced on Sol 2444, June 22, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Document the area

Also planned is use of Curiosity’s Mastcam to produce an 11×6 stereo mosaic to completely document the area around Beauly, Fraeman reports. Scientists have also planned to collect a 1×10 Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) observation of a target named “Bower.”

Curiosity MAHLI image produced on Sol 2444, June 22, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

“Curiosity will even squeeze in some environmental science observations with Navcam suprahorizon and zenith movies,” Fraeman concludes.

Curiosity Mastcam Right image taken on Sol 2443, June 21, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Curiosity Rear Hazcam Left B photo acquired on Sol 2444, June 22, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Credit: SpinLaunch


SpinLaunch has been awarded a responsive launch prototype contract from the Department of Defense, facilitated by the Defense Innovation Unit.

Work is moving forward on the SpinLaunch concept: developing a kinetic energy-based launch system that will provide a low-cost orbital launch services for the rapidly growing small satellite industry.

Tapping existing technology

According to SpinLaunch, the launch system utilizes existing technology and components from oil/gas/mining and wind turbine industries. In tapping these technologies, the group is constructing a mass acceleration system, one that achieves very high launch speeds without the need for enormous power generation or massive infrastructure.

After ascending above the atmosphere, a relatively small, low-cost onboard rocket will be used to provide the final required velocity for orbital insertion.

Aerial view of New Mexico’s Spaceport America.
Credit: Spaceport America

High frequency launch

A SpinLaunch fact sheet explains that, because the majority of the energy required to reach orbit is sourced from ground-based electricity, as opposed to complex onboard rocket propulsion, total launch cost is reduced by an order of magnitude over existing launch systems.

Credit: New Mexico Economic Development Department/Screengrab Inside Outer Space


SpinLaunch adds that the group is able to offer readily-available, low cost, dedicated launches at high frequencies and is working to provide up to five launches per day at a price of $250,000 per launch.

Groundbreaking for SpinLaunch facility at New Mexico’s Spaceport America.
Credit: Credit: New Mexico Economic Development Department/Screengrab Inside Outer Space


New Mexico test facility

In January 2019, SpinLaunch moved from Silicon Valley to its new 140,000 square foot headquarters in Long Beach, California and last month broke ground on a new $7 million test facility on 10 acres at New Mexico’s Spaceport America.

Credit: New Mexico Economic Development Department/Screengrab Inside Outer Space

First kinetic energy flight tests are expected to occur early 2020 and the company has announced its plans for first launch by 2022.

SpinLaunch was founded in 2014, by Jonathan Yaney, a 1,000+ hour pilot and serial entrepreneur with 15 years’ experience founding companies in aerospace, Fortune 500 consulting, IT, and construction industries.

Go to this New Mexico Economic Development Department ground breaking video at:

Source: ULA/SpaceX via GAO report 18-476


The United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) has released a report: “Schedule Uncertainty Persists for Start of Operational Missions to the International Space Station.”

In 2014, NASA awarded two firm-fixed-price contracts to Boeing and SpaceX, worth a combined total of up to $6.8 billion, to develop crew transportation systems and conduct initial missions to the International Space Station.

Before any missions can happen, NASA will have to certify that both contractors’ vehicles are safe for human spaceflight.

Chronic delays

But SpaceX and Boeing have run into chronic delays. While both contractors originally planned to be certified in 2017, now neither is expected to be ready until late 2019 at the earliest.

NASA has bought seats on a Russian vehicle to ensure U.S. access to the space station through September 2020, but does not have a plan if delays with U.S. contractors persist past then.

GAO continues to believe that NASA should develop a contingency plan to ensure uninterrupted access to the ISS if delays persist beyond September 2020. NASA generally agreed with GAO’s findings.

Highlights page go to:

Full report, go to:



For those Mars terraforming advocates, you’ll find an interesting read from the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

A Belfer Center study group has looked at solar geoengineering – not for the Red Planet but for the Blue Marble – Earth.

DSCOVR spacecraft view of the entire sunlit side of Earth.
Credit: NASA

The factsheet comes from the center’s Technology and Public Purpose Project.





Risks and uncertainties

As explained in the report, solar geoengineering has the potential to reduce climate impacts around the globe, but it also carries its own risks and uncertainties.

“The science and the governance are very challenging. The question at issue now is not about deployment,” the report notes. “It is about whether there should be a serious research effort on solar geoengineering to advance understanding on the efficacy, benefits, and risks, and to identify strategies that might make it safer.”

Credit: Courtesy of SOHO/[instrument] consortium. SOHO is a project of international cooperation between ESA and NASA.



Moral hazard, slippery slope

Proposed solar geoengineering technologies for the Earth include:  marine cloud brightening, cirrus cloud thinning, space-based techniques, and stratospheric aerosol scattering.

There are a number of policy issues for consideration, including:

For one, the study observes, there is serious concern that talking about, researching, and/or deploying solar geoengineering will reduce incentives to cut emissions—this problem is often referred to as “moral hazard.” It is highly likely that some fossil fuel interests will seek to exploit solar geoengineering to block mitigation.

Additionally, there is also concern that research on solar geoengineering could create powerful constituencies in favor of eventual deployment. Such a potential for socio-technical lock-in is sometimes called a “slippery slope.”

To read the full factsheet on Solar Geoengineering, go to:

Curiosity Front Hazcam Left B Image acquired on Sol 2441, June 19, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech



NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is now carrying out Sol 2442 duties, parked on Teal Ridge, in the midst of an extended contact science campaign.

Curiosity Navcam Right B photo taken on Sol 2442, June 20, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Curiosity Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), located on the turret at the end of the rover’s robotic arm, produced this image on Sol 2441, June 19, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Curiosity Navcam Left B image taken on Sol 2441. June 19, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

At this ridge location, new imagery from the robot shows crossbedding in a bedrock layer, as well as a contact between the bedrock outcrop and a rubbly layer below.


Space Launch System (SLS) Credit: NASA/MSFC

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued today a report that flags the finding: “Due to continued production and testing challenges, NASA’s three related human spaceflight programs have encountered additional launch delays and cost growth.”

Artist rendering of Lockheed Martin-built Orion spacecraft in deep space.
Credit: Lockheed Martin


Trio of systems

NASA is developing a trio of systems to put astronauts into space: the Orion crew vehicle, Space Launch System (SLS), and Exploration Ground Systems (EGS).

“In the past we’ve reported on concerns over the way NASA is managing these large and complex efforts—such as working to overly optimistic schedules,” the new report explains. “NASA is unlikely to meet its recently revised launch date for the first test flight. In addition, its reporting of cost growth for SLS and Orion is distorted. We recommended that NASA adopt more transparent cost reporting practices.”

Reevaluate strategy

The report makes four recommendations to NASA, including that the SLS program should calculate cost growth based on costs that are currently included in the first mission and the Orion program should update its cost estimate to reflect the schedule agreed to in its baseline. In addition, the SLS and Orion programs should reevaluate their strategy for incentivizing contractors, the report adds.

“NASA’s SLS, Orion, and EGS programs are a multi-billion dollar effort to transport humans beyond low-Earth orbit, but the agency has been unable to achieve agreed-to cost and schedule performance,” notes the GAO study.

Artist’s view of Space Launch System/Orion spacecraft on the launch pad.
Credit: NASA

“NASA acknowledges that future delays to the June 2020 launch date are likely, but the agency’s approach in estimating cost growth for the SLS and Orion programs is misleading. And it does not provide decision makers, including the Administrator, complete cost data with which to assess whether Congress needs to be notified of a cost increase, pursuant to law,” adds the GAO assessment.

NASA’s acquisition management has been on GAO’s High Risk List since 1990.

For details on this new GAO study, go to:

and the full report, here:

Curiosity Front Hazcam Left B image taken on Sol 2440, June 18, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is now performing Sol 2440 science tasks.

“The outcrop in front of us is spectacular,” reports Dawn Sumner, a planetary geologist at the University of California Davis; Davis, California.

Curiosity Rear Hazcam Left B photo acquired on Sol 2440, June 18, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Curiosity’s science team has planned regular weather observations, a survey of the sky at twilight, a movie looking for dust devils and a second one looking up at the clouds.

Also planned, Sumner adds, is a 360° Mastcam image to capture the regional outcrops as well as three Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science (AEGIS) analyses, where the instrument automatically selects targets within a region defined by the team.

Curiosity Mastcam Left image acquired on Sol 2439, June 17, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Curiosity Navcam Left B image taken on Sol 2439, June 17, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Curiosity Navcam Left B image taken on Sol 2439, June 17, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Curiosity Navcam Left B image taken on Sol 2439, June 17, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Credit: John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library Foundation Incorporated

The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library’s JFK Moonshot, is a first-of-its-kind augmented reality documentary app experience, and is now available for free download.

JFK Moonshot is a retelling and recreation of the Apollo 11 mission and its connection to President Kennedy.

Credit: NASA

This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the historic Moon Landing; a significant moment in U.S. history catalyzed by a 1962 landmark speech by President Kennedy that shared his “moonshot” vision of human achievement that was then unimaginable.


Now, a half a century later, once again, space is in the headlines. There is a new space race between nations. Visionary entrepreneurs see space as the next frontier in human progress.

Five-day journey

The free JFK Moonshot app includes:

  • First-ever full-scale AR recreation of the 363-ft Saturn V launch on its landing pad outside of the JFK Library in Boston or place the tabletop AR rocket to see it ready for takeoff anywhere in the world.
  • Longest-running AR powered live-stream experience available, the app will take users on the five-day journey (July 16th-20th) from the Earth to the Moon.
  • The mission simulation is made possible by combining 3D digital assets and actual archival footage and audio recordings.

Credit: NASA/ESA

Deeper dive

Using the latest in augmented reality technology, users are immersed into 1969 with a full-scale recreation of the Saturn V rocket and a 5-day real-time tracking simulation of the mission and moon landing.

Users can take a deeper dive into President Kennedy’s vision with interactive AR games, archival NASA footage and educational multimedia experiences.

Go to: