Tag: Moon

Back to Saturn? Five Missions Proposed To Follow Cassini

For 13 years, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft sent back captivating observations of Saturn, and its rings and moons, solving some mysteries but raising plenty of new questions.

With the spacecraft’s demise on Friday, the stream of data from Saturn has dried up.

Until we go back, that’s a very distant world now,” Linda Spilker, the project scientist for Cassini, said during a news conference on Friday.

The details of the rings, and those small moons snuggled in so close — those are all gone until we go back.

NASA currently has no plans to return to Saturn, but that could change. In the latest round in a scientific competition called New Frontiers, NASA specified categories of missions it would consider.

Those include a probe to study Saturn’s atmosphere or a mission to go to Titan or Enceladus, two moons known to have oceans.

The New Frontiers program solicits ideas for missions from teams of scientists and engineers. These projects can be ambitious, costing up to about $1 billion.

Earlier proposals included Juno, now orbiting Jupiter, and Osiris-Rex, currently en route to the asteroid Bennu.

NASA may announce finalists by the end of the year. A winning mission is to be selected by summer 2019 for launch around 2025.

At least five submitted proposals take aim at Saturn, Titan or Enceladus.


As a spacecraft, Dragonfly would be an oddity: It would have propellers, like a helicopter — “a nuclear quadcopter to look for life on Saturn’s moon, Titan,” Peter Bedini, a program manager at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, said in a recent talk.

Proponents of this concept say a quadcopter would be an ideal way to explore Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. The air is thick there, thicker than on Earth.

The landscape is varied, interspersed with obstacles — rivers, lakes and seas of liquid methane — that could prove inaccessible for a rover.

The booming popularity of flying drones in recent years makes the technology potentially feasible for interplanetary exploration, too.

In the past, scientists have suggested exploring the moon with balloons and airplanes. But Titan’s geology — sand dunes, eroded gullies — is more interesting than what is in the air.

Dragonfly would fly from place to place, but would spend most of its time performing experiments on the ground.

A second Titan proposal, Oceanus, is led by Christophe Sotin, the chief scientist for solar system exploration at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., which was Cassini’s home base.

The Oceanus spacecraft would study the moon from orbit, potentially identifying habitable regions for life.


Jonathan I. Lunine, a planetary scientist at Cornell University, was a member of the science team managing the Huygens probe, which traveled to Saturn with Cassini and landed on Titan.

He would be the principal investigator on a proposed mission to revisit Enceladus, a small moon just 313 miles wide.

The discovery of geysers shooting from its south pole was a stunning surprise, and now the moon is considered a prime place for look for life.

The proposed spacecraft, called Enceladus Life Finder, would fly through the plumes like Cassini did but with more sophisticated instruments capable of identifying a wide variety of molecules including amino acids, which would hint at signs of life.


The Saturn Probe Interior and Atmosphere Explorer would essentially do what Cassini did on Friday: descend into the planet’s atmosphere. But it would go much deeper.

The main part of the mission would end quickly — in about 90 minutes, as the probe parachuted into the atmosphere. It would take measurements of certain elements like helium that are hard to measure.

The ratio of helium to hydrogen is a crucial measure indicating how far from the sun a planet formed in the early days of the solar system.

Cassini attempted to measure that in its final plunge, but that data, from high in the atmosphere, will not be conclusive.

NASA’s Galileo spacecraft dropped an atmospheric probe into Jupiter in 1995, and this proposal is the “same exact idea as the Galileo probe,” said Amy Simon, an expert on planetary atmospheres at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

She would be the principal investigator for the mission.

To understand how the solar system formed, it’s crucial to understand its biggest fixtures. Saturn, of course, is the second largest planet, after Jupiter.

The two of them together tell you a lot of what happened in the early solar system,” Dr. Simon said. “It will answer those few fundamental questions that we could not do with Cassini.

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Neptune’s Moon: Triton

We don’t know with what beverage William Lassell may have celebrated his discovery of Neptune’s moon, Triton, but beer made it possible.

Lassell was one of 19th century England’s grand amateur astronomers, using the fortune he made in the brewery business to finance his telescopes.

He spotted Triton on 10 October 1846 — just 17 days after a Berlin observatory discovered Neptune.

Curiously, a week before he found the satellite, Lassell thought he saw a ring around the planet. That turned out to be a distortion caused by his telescope.

But when NASA’s Voyager 2 visited Neptune in 1989, it revealed that the gas giant does have rings, though they’re far too faint for Lassell to have seen them.

Since Neptune was named for the Roman god of the sea, its moons were named for various lesser sea gods and nymphs in Greek mythology.

Triton (not to be confused with Saturn’s moon, Titan), is far and away the largest of Neptune’s satellites. Dutch-American astronomer Gerard Kuiper (for whom the Kuiper Belt was named) found Neptune’s third-largest moon, Nereid, in 1949.

He missed Proteus, the second-largest, because it’s too dark and too close to Neptune for telescopes of that era.

Proteus is a slightly non-spherical moon, and it is thought to be right at the limit of how massive an object can be before its gravity pulls it into a sphere.

Proteus and five other moons had to wait for Voyager 2 to make themselves known. All six are among the darker objects found in the solar system.

Astronomers using improved ground-based telescopes found more satellites in 2002 and 2003, bringing the known total to 13.

Voyager 2 revealed fascinating details about Triton. Part of its surface resembles the rind of a cantaloupe.

Ice volcanoes spout what is probably a mixture of liquid nitrogen, methane and dust, which instantly freezes and then snows back down to the surface.

One Voyager 2 image shows a frosty plume shooting 8 km (5 miles) into the sky and drifting 140 km (87 miles) downwind.

Triton’s icy surface reflects so much of what little sunlight reaches it that the moon is one of the coldest objects in the solar system, about -400 degrees Fahrenheit (-240 degrees Celsius).

Triton is the only large moon in the solar system that circles its planet in a direction opposite to the planet’s rotation (a retrograde orbit), which suggests that it may once have been an independent object that Neptune captured.

The disruptive effect this would have had on other satellites could help to explain why Nereid has the most eccentric orbit of any known moon it’s almost seven times as far from Neptune at one end of its orbit as at the other end.

Neptune’s gravity acts as a drag on the counter-orbiting Triton, slowing it down and making it drop closer and closer to the planet.

Millions of years from now, Triton will come close enough for gravitational forces to break it apart possibly forming a ring around Neptune bright enough for Lassell to have seen with his telescope.

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NASA Issues Study Contracts For Deep Space Gateway Element

NASA awarded contracts Nov. 1 to five companies to examine how they could develop a power and propulsion module that could become the initial element of the agency’s proposed Deep Space Gateway.

NASA issued the contracts, part of the agency’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships, or NextSTEP, program, to Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK, Sierra Nevada Space Systems and Space Systems Loral.

The contracts, which run for four months, have a combined value of approximately $2.4 million.

Each company will perform studies regarding how they would develop the Power and Propulsion Element for the proposed gateway.

The module, as currently envisioned, will generate electrical power for the gateway and move the spacecraft through cislunar space with a solar electric propulsion system, as well as provide communications.

NASA has been studying the design of the element internally for several months, said Mike Barrett, manager of the Power and Propulsion Element effort at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, in a Nov. 3 interview.

These studies, he said, will offer industry an opportunity weigh in with their ideas, including technologies they can offer to support the module’s development.

We’ve been looking at it internally, but if they have different ideas on the general concept of the gateway, how we can do that and how it aligns with their internal plans, then we’re hoping to get that out of this as well,” he said.

The element does have some similarities with the robotic portion of the now-cancelled Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), in which a robotic spacecraft would have used solar electric propulsion to travel to a near-Earth asteroid and return to cislunar space with a boulder retrieved from that body.

NASA awarded study contracts for an ARM spacecraft bus and later solicited proposals for its construction, but never issued a contract for it.

NASA has separately been developing a 50-kilowatt solar electric propulsion system for use on the element that could later evolve into more powerful systems suitable for missions to Mars.

Companies involved in the study contracts can use that system in their designs or propose their own, provided it has similar capabilities and growth potential.

This study is separate from another ongoing set of NextSTEP awards made in 2016 to examine development of habitat modules that could be used on the Deep Space Gateway as well as other commercial applications.

All five of the companies that received contracts for Power and Propulsion Element studies also either have a NextSTEP habitat award or are partnered with a company that does.

How NASA plans to proceed with development of the element, including how it procures it from industry, will depend on the outcome of the studies as well as NASA’s overall exploration planning, said Gates.

The Deep Space Gateway remains a concept and not a formal NASA program as the agency studies options for its development, including roles for commercial and international partners.

Under NASA’s notional plans for the gateway, the Power and Propulsion Element would be the first module of the gateway launched, flying on the Exploration Mission (EM) 2 launch of the Space Launch System along with an Orion spacecraft.

Future SLS/Orion launches would carry other parts of the gateway, including a habitation module, logistics module and airlock.

That EM-2 mission, which will also be the first crewed flight of Orion, is planned for the early 2020s. “We have quite a lot of work in front of us,” Gates said.

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Astronomers May Have Found The First Exomoon

When the first exoplanet—or planet orbiting another star—was discovered in 1992, it was a very big deal.

Today, we’ve discovered thousands of exoplanets and it takes a particularly noteworthy one to grab our attention.

We’ve spotted big exoplanets, small exoplanets, and everything in between.

Now scientists are moving on to the next big thing: Exomoons.

Researchers examining old data from the Kepler Space Telescope have spotted what they believe is the first-ever moon beyond our solar system to be found, and they’re planning to use the Hubble Space Telescope to confirm it.

As you might have guessed, the exomoon is an enormous one. The planet in question is Jupiter-sized, and the moon if it indeed exists is around the same size as Neptune.

The Kepler telescope observed the planet and its moon passing in front of their star, which caused the star’s brightness to dip slightly.

This exoplanet-exomoon pair is a strange one, and looks nothing like anything in our own solar system. The researchers believe that the larger, Jupiter-sized planet captured the smaller one and turned it from planet into moon.

Unfortunately, the observations from Kepler aren’t clear enough for the scientists to say definitively that the moon exists. That’s why they need to use Hubble to take a second look.

If Hubble confirms the moon’s existence, it will be the first exomoon ever found. With the many highly sensitive telescopes scheduled to be completed in the next few years, more exomoon discoveries are almost certain.

We’ll probably find a few really big moons over the next few years, and as our telescopes get better we might start finding moons that look like our own.

Pretty soon, exomoons will be old news too, so enjoy this discovery while it’s still fresh.

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Take A Look At Our Cosmic Neighborhood

Due to the protective shielding of dangerous Galactic Cosmic Rays provided by a heliosphere or astrosphere, these structures are important for the planets that orbit the respective stars.

Only over the last 15 years, we have been able to detect the first astrospheres and planets around other stars (exoplanets). Graphic of the most immediate environment around the Sun, our cosmic neighborhood.

The locations of known astrospheres and exoplanets are indicated, while we anticipate that many more are present and just awaiting discovery.

The nearest star, alpha Centauri has an astrosphere, and we know of at least two cases where we have detected both an astrosphere and exoplanets.

These systems are truly analogous to our system in which the heliosphere shields a diverse planetary system.

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Forget Mars. We Should Go Back to the Moon

NASA wants to send humans to Mars by the 2030s. Neal Lane, Bill Clinton’s science adviser, says we should be looking at a closer goal.

All of us are excited about getting to Mars someday. But there’s a lot we don’t know—the impact of radiation exposure, how humans can work in low gravity.

We already know space causes serious health problems: vision impairment and bone loss and things we don’t even know about yet. There’s so much more we need to learn, and we can learn it closer to home: on the moon.

Several nations are interested in the moon: Russia, Japan, China, India, parts of Europe.

We don’t want to look down from lunar orbit and watch other countries setting up camp on the surface while we go around and around.

Let’s make sure we didn’t make a mistake by leaving a lunar settlement out of the picture.

It’s hard to imagine such cooperation with Russia today. But we’ve depended on Russia to transport our astronauts to the space station since George W. Bush canceled the space shuttle program.

Our astronauts have had very good relationships with Russian cosmonauts. Sometimes that mutual respect and affection can really help you when tensions between countries are high.

When it comes to our relations with China, tensions might be eased by finding ways to cooperate on space missions.

The space program is a symbol of what America is all about: the willingness to explore, to take risks, to understand the universe.

Plus, there are terrific commercial opportunities: satellites for communication and navigation, or mining precious ores on asteroids.

Space should be one of our highest priorities—but no president since Kennedy has really put space at the very top of the list.

Elon Musk has said his Mars plan will require a huge public-private partnership. Some companies will want to offer services to the government for quite a lot of money, and some may also make money through things like space tourism.

There are companies that offer to transport the ashes of loved ones to space!

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Here’s How We Might Save Fallen Astronauts On The Moon

If humans ever make it back to the moon, we’ll need to be prepared for all sort of eventualities, including what would happen if an astronaut becomes incapacitated while exploring the lunar surface.

The European Space Agency is working on a rescue system, called the Lunar Evacuation System Assembly (LESA), that could help a downed moonwalker get back to safety.

According to the ESA, here’s how it works: “A foldable pyramid-like structure on wheels opens above the astronaut, it lifts the incapacitated figure using pulleys and places it on a wheeled stretcher.

Though the moon has less gravity than Earth, bulky spacesuits would severely hamper efforts by one astronaut to pick up another astronaut.

That’s where a contraption like LESA comes in. The ESA says the structure “allows for quick recovery of a moonwalker while keeping the limited mobility of a spacesuit in mind.

LESA got a very wet dry run during a simulated space mission last week at Aquarius, an underwater research facility off the coast of Florida.

NASA uses Aquarius as a training base for its NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) project. The aquanauts adjust their buoyancy to simulate the environment on the moon.

The ESA released a series of images showing a simulated rescue in progress on the ocean floor. Once an astronaut is placed on the stretcher, it’s a lot easier to move the person.

The aquanauts’ feedback from the trials will go into modifying and improving the design.Right now, the system looks a bit bulky, but it does work as advertised. Let’s hope it will never need to be used in real life on the moon.

Right now, the system looks a bit bulky, but it does work as advertised. Let’s hope it will never need to be used in real life on the moon.

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Lava Oceans Gave The Ancient Moon A Watery Atmosphere

The Moon isn’t quite the wasteland we might assume it to be. Sure it’s no oasis, but there’s more water up there than scientists previously thought, and it was probably a far wetter and more active place in the distant past.

Now, a NASA study has found evidence that the ancient Moon may once have had a watery atmosphere.

Some of the largest features of the Moon’s pockmarked face are areas like the Imbrium basin, which formed billions of years ago from a collision with an asteroid that, at up to 300 km (186 mi) wide, was so large it could be considered a protoplanet.

But what makes this region visible from Earth is the dark basalt rock that fills the basin, which flowed as lava some 3.5 billion years ago.

Astronauts on the Apollo 15 and 17 missions collected samples from the edges of those ancient lava oceans (called maria), and later analysis revealed that gases like carbon monoxide, hydrogen, oxygen and sulfur, among others, would have been released at the time.

The new NASA study calculated just how much of those gases this volcanic activity would have created.

The eruptions, they found, were intense enough that gases would have been spewed out of the surface faster than they could escape into space, forming a temporary atmosphere relatively rich in water vapor, that ensconced the Moon for about 70 million years.

Eventually though, as the volcanic activity slowed the gases would have drifted into space, leaving our satellite the rocky husk we see today.

The total amount of H2O released during the emplacement of the mare basalts is nearly twice the volume of water in Lake Tahoe,” says Debra Needham, co-author of the study.

Although much of this vapor would have been lost to space, a significant fraction may have made its way to the lunar poles. This means some of the lunar polar volatiles we see at the lunar poles may have originated inside the Moon.”

These volatile gases, trapped in dark icy deposits at the Moon’s poles, could be precious resources for potential missions in the future.

Harvesting and processing them as sources of air and fuel could help astronauts set up more permanent operations, and in the far-distant future, these bases could be set up as refueling stations for manned missions to Mars and beyond.

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SpaceX Wants To Build One Rocket To Rule Them All

Elon Musk gave a keynote address yesterday to the International Aeronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia.

During the 43 minute talk, which is embedded above, Musk laid out SpaceX’s future including colonizing Mars and building one rocket to rule them all.

The talk is fantastic. Elon was Elon and revealed countless details about future SpaceX plans. This is why he’s celebrated in certain circles.

He doesn’t hold back whether on Twitter or during interviews. Unlike other Silicon Valley companies, he seemingly keeps fewer details secret and is more willing to talk about things his companies are building.

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NASA’s Cassini: Best Photos Of Saturn And Its Moons

A spectacular space exploration mission will end with a dramatic death.

The Cassini spacecraft will self-destruct by plunging into Saturn’s atmosphere, ultimately burning up and disintegrating.

The planned mid-September dive will be the final farewell for a nearly three-decade-long collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian space agency.

It’s been good while it lasted, Saturn.

The Cassini spacecraft launched aboard a Titan IVB/Centaur rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida on October 15, 1997, and spent seven years en route to its target, Saturn.

It entered orbit around the ringed planet in 2004 for what was intended to be a four-year mission but was twice extended for a total run of 13 years, or nearly 20 if you count the journey there.

Cassini completed the first in-depth reconnaissance of Saturn, its moons and its rings. When the mission dropped the Huygens probe on Titan, it was the first to land on the moon of a planet other than Earth.

There it discovered rain, rivers, lakes and seas. Cassini also found the first evidence of extraterrestrial hydrothermal activity on the moon Enceladus, where it also observed erupting geysers.

Its detailed observations of Saturn’s rings could help scientists understand how the planets in our solar system formed.

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