Archive for October, 2019

A supercomputer simulation by LLNL physicist Mike Owen illustrates how a 1 megaton nuclear detonation could impart enough energy onto the surface of the massive asteroid 101955 Bennu to nudge it off course, if it were to be on an Earthbound trajectory. The black dot is the simulated detonation location, around 100 meters from the surface at the equator. The colors show where X-rays would heat a thin layer of surface material. Blue areas would be heated, but not enough to eject material. All other colored areas would deposit enough energy to eject surface material and alter the asteroid’s velocity and trajectory.
Credit: LLNL


The first-ever, in-depth investigation into how an asteroid would respond to a nuclear deflection attempt has been completed.

The research was published by Acta Astronautica online Oct. 15 and will appear in print in early 2020.

The focus of the investigation was 101955 Bennu, a massive asteroid that has a remote chance of crossing paths with Earth more than a century from now.

It is the second examination of deflection technologies using Bennu as a test case.

Nuclear impulse

The first Bennu case study found that a kinetic impactor – similar to using a spacecraft as a battering ram – would not be effective at deflecting a Bennu-class asteroid. This second case study, however, found that a standoff nuclear impulse would be effective in deflecting Bennu.

An interagency team of researchers led by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) completed the appraisal. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Los Alamos National Laboratory and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) collaborated on the research.

NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft.
Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

Research highlights

If space rock Bennu sounds familiar, it should – it is now being investigated by NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft.

Highlights of the new research:

— Asteroid Bennu can be successfully deflected by extant nuclear devices.

— Kinetic impact, even with large momentum enhancement, is unlikely to deflect  Bennu.

— Nuclear deflection efficacy depends upon the x-ray source spectrum.

— Nuclear deflection efficacy is enhanced by near-surface, unbound volatiles.

Final option

“The nuclear option would be the key to deflecting large asteroids,” said Dave Dearborn, an LLNL physicist and lead author on the paper. “It also offers flexibility that impactors don’t. For instance, the amount of energy deposited into an asteroid with a nuclear device can be tuned by adjusting how far it is from the asteroid when detonated,” he said in a LLNL press statement.

As explained in the research paper, though rare, asteroid impacts are inevitable, and with the current state of technology, kinetic impactors are the preferred but not the complete solution. If the time to impact is short, or the threatening body too large, nuclear deflection serves as a final option.

To view the new paper – “Options and uncertainties in planetary defense: Impulse-dependent response and the physical properties of asteroids” – go to:

“Central Butte” is visible in this image taken by Curiosity’s Left Navigation Camera B Sol 2565 October 24, 2019
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is now carrying out Sol 2567 duties.

Kristen Bennett, a planetary geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona, reports that Curiosity is in an incredible area, with interesting rocks in the workspace and towering buttes ahead of the Mars machinery.

“There are some color variations within the workspace, with some gray blocks right in front of the rover,” Bennett notes. There are three contact science targets in the weekend plan, two are a combination of Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) and Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) observations, and one is a MAHLI-only observation.

Curiosity Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam) Remote Micro Imager (RMI) photo taken on Sol 2566, October 25, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL

Clear the dust

“South Ronaldsay” is on a flat bedrock target, and the Dust Removal Tool will be used to clear the dust before the MAHLI and APXS observations, Bennett explains.

“White Craig” is a MAHLI and APXS target on a different block to characterize any potential variations in this area.

Curiosity Mast Camera (Mastcam) Left image taken on Sol 2565, October 24, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Finally, “The Doups” is a MAHLI-only target in which we will look obliquely at the side of a block to investigate the sedimentary structures in this area.

Remote science

The weekend plan is also chock-full of remote science.

The robot’s Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) will target South Ronaldsay, so scientists can compare these results to the contact science observations.

Curiosity Left Navigation Camera B photo acquired on Sol 2565, October 24, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

ChemCam will also target “Ruvaal,” which is on another part of the bedrock in the workspace, to test for variations. Mastcam will take documentation images of both of these ChemCam targets.

Curiosity Left Navigation Camera B image acquired on Sol 2566, October 25, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Butte and tower country

Additionally, there are two large Mastcam mosaics in the plan.

“Curiosity is now driving through butte and tower country, so we planned mosaics to cover two of the nearby buttes,” Bennett reports. “One mosaic is of ‘Central Butte,’ which we will continue to drive around. Another is of “Rapness,” which is off to the east of the rover.”

After all these observations, Curiosity will drive towards Central Butte, Bennett adds, to start investigating the laminations that outcrop there. To add even more science observations to the plan, Curiosity will also take mid-drive imaging with Mastcam in order to get stereo information of the butte.

Curiosity Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam) RMI image taken on Sol 2565, October 24, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL

“Usually we get stereo by taking a Mastcam image of a target with both the right and left Mastcam cameras. But we can also obtain stereo by taking a picture, physically moving the rover a little bit, and then taking another picture,” Bennett concludes. “This butte is showing off some amazing laminations, so we are doing this long baseline stereo observation to better characterize this area.”


New road map

A new road map shows the route driven by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity through the 2563 Martian day, or sol, of the rover’s mission on Mars (October 22, 2019).

Numbering of the dots along the line indicate the sol number of each drive. North is up. From Sol 2559 to Sol 2563, Curiosity had driven a straight line distance of about 15.35 feet (4.68 meters).



Since touching down in Bradbury Landing in August 2012, Curiosity has driven 13.15 miles (21.17 kilometers).

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

Curiosity Right Navigation Camera B image acquired on Sol 2566, October 25, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Red Planet as seen by Europe’s Mars Express.
Credit: ESA/D. O’Donnell – CC BY-SA IGO


There is growing discussion, debate, and frustration regarding future exploration of Mars and how best to hunt for past, even present life on the Red Planet.

Credit: Bryan Versteeg

A wide range of thorny issues now require attention. Some of these have been brought to the fore by just round the corner private sector missions, cleanliness demands for Mars probes, plans to robotically hurl Martian samples back to Earth, and the outlook of eventually planting human footprints on that faraway world.

One facet of the deliberation is what constitutes a “Special Region” on Mars.

For more information, please go to my new Scientific American story:

Reduce Red Tape for the Red Planet, Report Says – Regulations governing the responsible exploration of Mars and other worlds require regular, frequent updates, according to a new NASA review

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“We have made important progress in our attempts to get the mole digging again…in fact, we got it digging again!”

That’s the word from Tilman Spohn of the German Aerospace Center’s (DLR) Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin. He’s the experiment leader on the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3), the self-hammering “mole” designed to dig down as much as 16 feet (5 meters) and take Mars’ temperature.

The HP3 has been trouble-plagued, deployed from the NASA InSight Mars lander.

Components of the HP3 heat flow probe. Top left: the radiometer (RAD), which is used to measure the radiation temperature (roughly equivalent to the ground temperature) of the surface. Right: the casing with the mole penetrometer, the temperature measuring cable (TEM-P) and the data cable (ET) connected to the lander. In addition, the casing contains an optical length meter for determining the length of the temperature measuring cable that has been pulled from the casing. The mole contains the TEM-A active thermal conductivity sensor and the STATIL tiltmeter. Bottom left: the electronic control unit, known as the back end electronics (BEE), which remains on the lander and is connected to the probe via the ET.
Credit: DLR

Digging slowly but steadily

“You may recall that we have pinned the mole with the [lander’s robotic] scoop which resulted in the mole digging slowly but steadily. Four carefully planned sessions have been executed on sols 308, 311, 315 and 318, with 20, 100, 100, and 150 strokes, respectively,” Spohn reports.

At the end of sol 318, mole scientists had exhausted their capability of pinning because the mole had dug so deep that it would risk the tether if the arm under tension would move uncontrolled to the left as the mole dug below it.

“We therefore moved the arm slightly to the right – about 1 centimeter –  away from the mole thereby releasing the pin,” Spohn adds. The arm was commanded to press onto the surface.

InSight mole specialists and technicians at Jet Propulsion Laboratory have developed and have implemented strategies to get the mole moving again. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.


“With its force of 50 Newtons, we estimated that the load at the mole at shallow depth would still be more than twice the load provided by the overburden. Still, as the friction on the mole sleeve would be significantly less than from pinning, it was not obvious that the mole would continue digging,” Spohn explains.

Mole scientists and technicians commanded 50 strokes to be executed on sol 322 because they would not have proof that the scoop would indeed press on the surface as we started hammering. The mole was clearly seen to dig.

InSight Mars lander.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“To me this is a breakthrough! It tells me that indeed insufficient friction was the root cause of the problem,” Spohn points out. “I am now confident that with the next round of hammer strokes – 500 are planned for sol 325 – we get the mole fully buried,” he notes.

The news from the site about this prospect will be available on Saturday evening Central European Time.

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO).
Credit: NASA/Goddard Science Visualization Studio (SVS)

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has once again imaged the area where India’s Chandrayaan-2 Vikram Moon lander failed to successfully touch down.

LRO  imaged the targeted landing site on October 14 but did not observe any evidence of the lander. 

Pre-launch photo shows India’s Pragyan rover mounted on the ramp projecting from out of the sides of Vikram lunar lander.
Credit: ISRO

Change detection technique

The LRO camera team carefully examined the images and employed the change detection technique (using a ratio of an image from prior to the landing attempt to the one acquired on October 14).

That technique is used for finding new meteorite impacts on the Moon that also helped locate Israel’s Beresheet failed lunar lander earlier this year. 

“It is possible that Vikram is located in a shadow or outside of the search area.  Because of the low latitude, approximately 70 degrees south, the area is never completely free of shadows,” explains a NASA statement.

Dust up on the Moon. Apollo 17 commander prepares to doff lunar dust-covered space suit.
Credit: NASA


Think of it as a flash back message from the Apollo moonwalkers. The Moon is a Disneyland of dust.

Between 1969 and the end of 1972, a dozen astronauts kicked up the powdery regolith, the topside dirt of the Moon.

Apollo aroma

Apollo expedition members could not escape tracking lunar material inside their Moon lander homes. After doffing their helmets and gloves, moonwalkers could feel the abrasive nature of the dust, as well as smell and even taste the Moon. And that gave rise to the “Apollo aroma”- astronaut recollections of the odor of the Moon.

A vial of Apollo 11 Moon dust from a lunar sample collected in 1969.
Credit: Marilee Bailey/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Turns out, it has a distinctive odiferous smell.

Dangers to address

Earth’s Moon will be the “go-to” place as the century progresses. But there will also be political, economic and financial reasons to explore and colonize lunar territory, in particular, to extract water from the Moon’s surface and to mine for precious rare-earth metals as terrestrial resources dwindle.


Though there will be opportunities for those willing to make use of those resources, whether as nations, as individuals, as private companies or as a combination of these, there will be dangers to address.

One such danger to astronauts will be from exposure to lunar dust.


For more information, please read my new story:

Moon Dust Could Be a Problem for Future Lunar Explorers

Lunar dust is abrasive and gets into everything.


Curiosity Left Navigation Camera B image taken on Sol 2559, October 18, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is now performing Sol 2560 duties.

Curiosity Left Navigation Camera B image taken on Sol 2559, October 18, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Reports Susanne Schwenzer, a planetary geologist at The Open University, Milton Keynes, U.K., due to no reception of “decisional data” from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars rover teams decided to make the best use of the time and energy available using the untargeted investigations available to them.

Curiosity Left Navigation Camera B image taken on Sol 2559, October 18, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The rover’s Mastcam has been busy with a 360 panorama, “which will give context to all our past and future investigations in the area,” Schwenzer explains.

“In addition to the daytime ground-based observation, Mastcam wakes up in the dark to do an astronomical investigation of Phobos, followed – in daytime – by some calibration activities.”

Curiosity Left Navigation Camera B image acquired on Sol 2559, October 18, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Curiosity Left Navigation Camera B image taken on Sol 2559, October 18, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Busy weekend

Schwenzer adds that it’s not only Mastcam that will be busy over the weekend.

Curiosity’s Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) has two observations to investigate three targets.

ChemCam can use Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science (AEGIS), an image processing routine to find its own targets.




“It will be looking for one target in the workspace, and two to the side of the rover,” Schwenzer concludes. “We are now all looking forward to data from 5 sols of Curiosity activities – stay tuned!”

Houston: Space City USA by Ray Viator; Texas A&M University Press, College Station, Texas, 2019; hardcover:  224 pp. 222 color, 6 b&w photos, $37.00.

Given the development of new spaceports around the world, this volume celebrates Houston, Texas as “mission control” for America’s on-going spaceflight program.

Recall those words from Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong on July 20, 1969: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

This visually stunning work by Viator, a Houston author and photographer, captures the spirit of Houston’s ties to America’s space program. Beyond the splendid visuals, the book is loaded with gems of knowledge, such as why Houston was the selected site for the $200 million “manned spaceflight laboratory.”

There are a number of refreshing surprises throughout this volume, including an appendix that honors and remembers the human cost in pioneering the space frontier.

Author Ray Viator
Photo by Cynthia Viator

“The book also celebrates the impact of the space program on our city and region,” Viator writes. “The space program raised Houston’s visibility both nationally and around the world.” As the author notes, about 20 percent of the nearly one million annual visitors to Space Center Houston come from other nations.

“This book is also a celebration of the whimsical and humorous, the fancy and the fantastical that surrounds us every day, if we just take the time to look,” Viator adds.

The reader will find a unique blend of imagery and text within the book’s pages, anchoring Houston as mission control over the past decades to today…and the future.

All proceeds from sales of “Houston: Space City USA” benefit Houston Public Media’s programming and news coverage of space, science and technology.

For more information on this book, go to:

Curiosity Left Navigation Camera Left B photo acquired on Sol 2558, October 17, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is now carrying out Sol 2559 duties.

“Our drive away from our long-time home at the “Glen Etive” drilling site was successful, and set us up nicely at our next exploration site, one of the “Culbin Sands” megaripples,” reports Michelle Minitti, a planetary geologist at Framework in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Curiosity Front Hazard Avoidance Camera Right B image taken on Sol 2558, October 17, 2019.

Scuff the ripple

A recent primary goal was for Curiosity to “scuff” the ripple, intentionally driving into the ripple with its front right wheel to churn up and expose its interior.

Curiosity Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) photo produced on Sol 2558, October 17, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

“By studying the composition and grain size of the ripple interior and exterior, the team hopes to determine the origin and history of these megaripple features,” Minitti explains. “Before exposing the interior of the ripple with the scuff, the team acquired data from the ripple exterior, specifically the ripple crest.”

Curiosity Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) photo produced on Sol 2558, October 17, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Laser shots

The ten shot Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) raster across the ripple crest, on the target “Seilebost Beach,” will provide insight into the chemistry and size distribution of the grains on top of the ripple, Minitti adds.

After shooting Seilebost Beach, the rover was set to back up just over one meter and then acquire Mastcam and Navcam mosaics encompassing the whole of the ripple.

“These will give us one last pristine look at the ripple in its entirety before the wheel digs in,” Minitti notes. “The rover will then scuff the ripple and then position itself so that the scuff is within reach of the arm and mast instruments for several subsequent days of science observations focused on the scuff.”

Curiosity Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) photo produced on Sol 2558, October 17, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Shadows on Mt. Sharp

Once the robot is parked in place, the Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) is scheduled to acquire an image of the ripple surface under the rover and the Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) is slated to ping the new ground beneath the rover with an active measurement.



“The sky above us is always changing,” Minitti concludes, “so the rover acquired Navcam movies to look for clouds in the sky and any shadows they cast on Mt. Sharp, as well as an atmospheric chemistry analysis with its Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) along with taking regular Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) and Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) measurements.


Artist view of China’s space station. Credit: CMSE


The China Manned Space Agency is pressing forward on its space station construction plans, “hiring” individuals to help shape the country’s next phase of human spaceflight.

Prototype of the Tianhe core module. China’s space station is expected to be operational around 2022.
Credit: CCTV/Screengrab/Inside Outer Space

China’s Xinhua news agency reports that preparations are underway for the upcoming “high-density” space missions to construct China’s space station. Additionally, the Long March-5B carrier rocket is set to launch elements of the Chinese space station and is now expected to make its maiden flight in 2020.

China’s human spaceflight program is moving forward on a multimodule space station in the 2020s.
Courtesy: CMSE

New hires

China Global Television Network (CGTN) reports new leaders of China’s Manned Space Engineering Project were announced at a press conference on Tuesday.

Zhou Jianping, a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, was hired as the chief designer.

This put an end to the project’s history of having leaders appointed, reports CGTN. Another position called “chief expert in space science” was also filled by hiring Gu Yidong, a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

According to an announcement by the China Manned Space Engineering Office, this change is “the inevitable requirement for the project to enter a new era of application development.”

Wang Zhonggui, Yang Liwei (China’s first astronaut), Chen Shanguang, Zhou Weifei, Liu Jin, Deng Yibing, Tang Yihua and Zhang Bonan were hired as deputy chief designers of China’s manned space exploration.


The Tianhe core module for China’s Space Station undergoes ground testing.
Credit: CCTV/ScreengrabNew astronauts

New astronauts

China is striving to finish construction of their space station around 2022.

Weighing 66 tons, the Tiangong space station will be T-shaped with the Tianhe core module at the center and the Wentian and Mengtian experiment capsules on each side. The orbital outpost could be enlarged to 180 tons, accommodating three to six crewmembers.

According to Zhou, the station is designed to last at least 10 years and could be prolonged through in-orbit maintenance.

Yang Liwei, the country’s first astronaut.
Credit: CMSE

Chinese docking mechanism

Zhou explained that China is selecting new astronauts for station missions.

After the construction of the station is completed, Zhou adds, China welcomes overseas astronauts to work together with domestic astronauts aboard the country’s station. International spacecraft can also be docked with China’s facility if they use a Chinese docking mechanism, Zhou said.

Credit: China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC).


Key technologies

In a related Xinhua story earlier this week, Chinese first astronaut, Yang Liwei, said he was looking forward to setting foot on the Moon.

“China has started to develop the key technologies related to manned lunar landing. It would be exciting to see Chinese astronauts stepping onto the extraterrestrial object,” Yang said.

“Like all the other Chinese astronauts, I’m ready for the nation’s call,” Yang said. He made the remarks at the 16th anniversary of his flying into space aboard the Shenzhou-5 spacecraft on Oct. 15, 2003, according to the China Manned Space Agency.