Tag: Spacecraft

New Dive Into Old Data Finds Plumes Erupt From Jupiter’s Moon Europa

Spinnable maps of Jupiter and the Galilean moons.

Europa is an ice-encrusted moon of Jupiter with a global ocean flowing underneath its surface. NASA is planning a mission soon that will look for signs of possible life there.

Now, a new finding from old data makes that mission even more tantalizing.

In recent years, the Hubble Space Telescope has spotted what looks like plumes, likely of water vapor, reaching more than 100 miles above the surface.

The plumes, if they exist, could contain molecules that hint at whether Europa possesses the building blocks of life.

In a study published Monday in the journal Nature Astronomy, scientists are reporting a belated discovery that Galileo, an earlier NASA spacecraft that studied Jupiter, appears to have flown through one of the Europa plumes more than 20 years ago.

And that occurred close to one of four regions where Hubble has observed plumes.




That’s too many coincidences just to dismiss as ‘There’s nothing there’ or ‘We don’t understand the data,’” said Robert T. Pappalardo, the project scientist for NASA’s upcoming Europa Clipper mission, which may launch as soon as 2022.

“It sure seems like there’s some phenomenon, and plumes seem consistent.”

Galileo, which launched in 1989, arrived at Jupiter in 1995 and spent almost eight years examining the planet and its moons until its mission ended with a swan dive into Jupiter in 2003.

During a flyby of Europa on Dec. 16, 1997, instruments on Galileo measured a swing in the magnetic field and a jump in the density of electrons. At the time, scientists noted the unusual readings, but they did not have an explanation.

An image taken by the Cassini spacecraft in 2010 showing Saturn’s moon Enceladus, which also shoots plumes of ice crystals into space.Credit

Then, in 2005, another spacecraft passing by another moon around another planet made a startling observation.

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft — which completed its mission last September — found geysers of ice crystals erupting out of Enceladus, a small moon of Saturn. Enceladus, it turns out, also has an ocean of liquid water under its ice.

That spurred renewed curiosity about Europa and whether it too might burp bits of its ocean into space. The Hubble first recorded signs of possible plumes in 2012, then again in 2014 and 2016.

But at other times, Hubble has looked and seen nothing. That suggests the plumes are sporadic.

An image of Europa’s surface. Scientists hope the Europa Clipper mission, which may launch in 2022, can be tweaked to allow one of its 40 planned flybys to pass through a plume.

Last year, Melissa A. McGrath, a senior scientist at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif. who was not involved in the new study, took a look at some radio experiments conducted by Galileo which examined how signals bent as Europa passed between Earth and the spacecraft.

The experiments showed Europa possesses an atmosphere.

Astronomers will certainly be taking more looks at Europa with the Hubble, trying to better understand how often the plumes erupt.

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Mars InSight: NASA’s Journey Into The Red Planet’s Deepest Mysteries

As early as 4:05 a.m. PDT on May 5th, those on the West Coast of the United States will have the chance to witness an interplanetary launch for the first time.

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket will carry NASA’s InSight spacecraft into orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base, near Lompoc, California.

InSight, which stands for Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, is a lander bound for the Elysium Planitia region in Mars’s Northern hemisphere.

There, it will gather data on the crust, mantle and core of Mars. It will also listen for tectonic activity and meteorite impacts.

Though the launch represents the beginning of InSight’s expedition, in another way, it is the end of a long journey. NASA delayed the lander’s original launch in 2016 after discovering a problem with a key instrument.

This second chance at the mission gives planetary scientists another opportunity to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.




A Look Inside Mars

As the date of the launch approaches, planetary scientists are gearing up for a wealth of new information that will provide clues into how rocky planets form, show how Mars evolved over time, and provide one of the most complete records of regional weather on Mars that we’ve ever had.

These experiments could shed light on the history of the Earth and other rocky planets in the cosmos, as well as lay groundwork for future human exploration of the Red Planet.

Scientists are looking to gather information on the basic structure of Mars—for example, the thickness of its crust and the composition of its mantle and core.

These discoveries will give insight into the formation of rocky planets in general because, unlike Earth, the underlying crust of Mars appears to have been stable for the life of the planet, says Bruce Banerdt, InSight principal investigator and a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

While none of the material in the Earth’s core is more than 100 million years old, Banerdt explains that there is evidence that Mars hasn’t undergone a major reworking since 4.2 to 4.3 billion years ago.

The deep interior is relatively pristine,” he says.

Three Key Experiments

To look inside Mars, InSight will conduct three major experiments.

  • The Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) is a seismometer that will monitor quakes and internal activity, allowing scientists to draw conclusions about the history and structure of the Red Planet.
  • The Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) will measure how much heat is coming from the interior of the planet, how heat flows underground, and paint a picture of how heat has been driving geologic and internal processes under the surface. Banerdt says this gives scientists an idea of how the interior of Mars has evolved over time.
  • Finally, the Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment (RISE) will use radio signals between the lander and Earth to detect “rotational wobbles,” which reveal properties of the core and the way the core interacts with the mantle.

Assuming clear weather, InSight’s launch will be visible in person from Santa Maria, California, to San Diego, California. NASA provides information on both official viewing sites and informal viewing sites on a launch page.

For those not on the West Coast, NASA will stream the launch online at NASA.gov/live, which will be mirrored directly below the day of the launch.

Video of the launch will be available on demand later at YouTube.com/NASAJPL/live and Ustream.tv/NASAJPL.

The launch window for InSight begins at 4:05 a.m. PDT on May 5th and runs through June 8th. Those who witness the rocket’s progress through the sky in the early morning hours can decide whether to wave goodbye or hello.

In either case, it will be a moment to watch.

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SpaceX Blasts Off NASA’s New Spacecraft On Quest To Find New Planets

NASA’s TESS spacecraft embarked Wednesday on a quest to find new worlds around neighboring stars that could support life.

TESS rode a SpaceX Falcon rocket through the evening sky, aiming for an orbit stretching all the way to the moon.

The satellite — the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or Tess — will scan almost the entire sky for at least two years, starting at the closest, brightest stars in an effort to find and identify any planets around them.

Hundreds of thousands of stars will be scrutinized, with the expectation that thousands of exoplanets — planets outside our own solar system — will be revealed right in our cosmic backyard.

Rocky and icy planets, hot gas giants and, possibly, water worlds. Super-Earths between the sizes of Earth and Neptune. Maybe even an Earth twin.

Discoveries by Tess and other missions, he noted, will bring us closer to answering questions that have lingered for thousands of years.




Does life exist beyond Earth? If so, is it microbial or more advanced? But Tess won’t look for life.

It’s not designed for that. Rather, it will scout for planets of all sorts, but especially those in the so-called Goldilocks or habitable zone of a star: an orbit where temperatures are neither too cold nor too hot, but just right for life-nourishing water.

The most promising candidates will be studied by bigger, more powerful observatories of the future, including NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, due to launch in another few years as the heir to Hubble.

These telescopes will scour the planets’ atmospheres for any of the ingredients of life: water vapor, oxygen, methane, carbon dioxide.

TESS is the successor to NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, on its last legs after discovering a few thousand exoplanets over the past nine years.

Astronomers anticipate more than doubling Kepler’s confirmed planetary count of more than 2,600, once Tess’ four wide-view cameras begin scientific observations in early summer.

Unlike Tess, Kepler could only scour a sliver of the sky.

The total exoplanet census currently stands at more than 3,700 confirmed, with another 4,500 on the not-yet-verified list. That’s a lot considering the first one popped up barely two decades ago.

Until about 25 years ago, the only known planets were in our own solar system, noted NASA’s director of astrophysics, Paul Hertz.

While Kepler has focused on stars thousands of light-years away, Tess will concentrate on our stellar neighbors, dozens or hundreds of light-years away.

Most of TESS’ targets will be cool, common red dwarf stars, thought to be rich breeding grounds for planets.

To find the planets, Tess will use the same transit method employed by Kepler, watching for regular, fleeting dips in stellar brightness that would indicate a planet passing in front of its star. That’s the best astronomers can do for now.

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NASA’s Exoplanet-Hunter TESS Gets Prepped For Launch

Final preparations are underway here at Kennedy Space Center to get NASA’s next planet-hunting spacecraft, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), ready for its planned April 16 launch.

The satellite, built by Orbital ATK, arrived here on Feb, 12 after a 17-hour drive down from Orbital’s facility in Dulles, Virginia, and was ushered inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHSF) to be readied for launch.

However, before it hitches a ride to space atop SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, NASA invited members of the media to get a close-up look at TESS inside a specialized clean room.

The PHSF is one of the last stops a spacecraft makes before launch. Inside this unique facility, engineers conduct final tests and load hazardous fuels, such as hydrazine that will help propel the spacecraft.

Therefore, anyone who enters must follow a strict protocol, including wearing a special suit known as a bunny suit.




Before entering the clean room, a group of eager journalists were regaled with mission specifics by the TESS team, which included the mission’s principal investigator, George Ricker of MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research.

The TESS mission, which is managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and operated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), will spend at least two years studying more than 200,000 of the closest and brightest stars in our solar neighborhood.

TESS will scan the sky, looking for tiny dips in starlight. These dips in brightness — known as transits — could indicate that one or more planets is orbiting the star.

Ricker said that the team expects to discover several thousand planets during the spacecraft’s mission.

The Kepler Space Telescope, NASA’s planet-hunting powerhouse, has identified more than 2,000 confirmed exoplanets using the same “transit” technique as TESS.

However, TESS has a much larger field of view — nearly 20 times larger than Kepler — potentially allowing it to surpass Kepler in the number of exoplanet discoveries.

Thanks to Kepler, we now know that planets around other stars are very common. Kepler spent its primary mission staring at a narrow patch of sky to answer that very question.

Unfortunately, all of Kepler’s discoveries are too far away for follow-up study.

Scheduled to launch next year, Webb will scan the targets identified by TESS to look for water vapor, methane and other atmospheric gases. And, with a little luck, Webb might even spot signatures indicative of life beyond Earth.

TESS will launch into a high, elliptical orbit around Earth that is in a 2:1 resonance with the moon — it will orbit twice for every one time the moon goes all the way around.

This type of orbit has multiple benefits: it is very stable, meaning it won’t be affected by space debris, radiation, while allowing the spacecraft to easily communicate with the ground.

However, this type of orbit limits the number of launch opportunities, as it must be synchronized with the moon’s orbit around the Earth. After launch, it will take the spacecraft two months to reach its destination.

During our visit, engineers were prepping the spacecraft for final testing before launch. That testing included final checkouts of the solar arrays and is expected to be completed February 21.

Next, TESS will be mated to the launch vehicle.

Originally slated to launch on March 20, TESS is currently scheduled to lift off on April 16, following a one-month delay requested by the launch provider, SpaceX. However, TESS must launch by June per congressional mandate.

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A Time Lapse Sequence At Jupiter’s South Pole

 

This series of images captures cloud patterns near Jupiter’s south pole, looking up towards the planet’s equator.

NASA’s Juno spacecraft took the color-enhanced time-lapse sequence of images during its eleventh close flyby of the gas giant planet on Feb. 7 between 7:21 a.m. and 8:01 a.m. PST (10:21 a.m. and 11:01 a.m. EST).

At the time, the spacecraft was between 85,292 to 124,856 miles (137,264 to 200,937 kilometers) from the tops of the clouds of the planet with the images centered on latitudes from 84.1 to 75.5 degrees south.




At first glance, the series might appear to be the same image repeated. But closer inspection reveals slight changes, which are most easily noticed by comparing the far left image with the far right image.

Directly, the images show Jupiter.

But, through slight variations in the images, they indirectly capture the motion of the Juno spacecraft itself, once again swinging around a giant planet hundreds of millions of miles from Earth.

Citizen scientist Gerald Eichstädt processed this image using data from the JunoCam imager.

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NASA’s New Horizons Spacecraft Snaps Image From 3.8 Billion Miles Away From Earth

At first glance it might not look like much – but, with a fuzzy purple and green photo, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has made history.

On December 5, New Horizons captured an image said to be the farthest from Earth ever taken, at a staggering 3.79 billion miles away.

And, just hours later, it beat its own record.

According to NASA, the remarkable false-color images sent back by New Horizons are also the closest-ever images captured of objects in the Kuiper Belt.

When New Horizon’s snapped a photo with its telescopic camera for a routine calibration frame of the Wishing Well star cluster, it was farther into space than even NASA’s Voyager 1 had been when it captured its famous ‘Pale Blue Dot’ image of Earth, the space agency says.

At the time, New Horizons was 3.79 billion miles (6.12 billion kilometers) from Earth.


Voyager, by comparison, was 3.75 billion miles (6.06 billion kilometers) from Earth when it captured its famous photo in 1990.

According to NASA, New Horizons is now the fifth spacecraft to fly beyond the outer planets of our solar system.

Hours after its first record-breaking image on Dec 5, it captured another. The latter shows a look at Kuiper Belt objects HZ84 and 2012 HE85.

The images were captured using the spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI). And, NASA says they’re the closest images yet of objects in this region.

New Horizons has long been a mission of firsts – first to explore Pluto, first to explore the Kuiper Belt, fastest spacecraft ever launched,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

“And now, we’ve been able to make images farther from Earth than any spacecraft in history.”

New Horizons is now on its way to a KBO named 2014 MU69, with which it’s expected to make a close encounter on Jan 1, 2019.

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Everything You Need To Know About Today’s Falcon Heavy Launch

The time has finally come for SpaceX to launch its Falcon Heavy rocket. A launch license has been issued for the giant vehicle to take flight this Tuesday.

It’s a mission that many have been waiting for since 2011 when SpaceX CEO Elon Musk first announced plans to develop the vehicle.

Now, after seven years and numerous delays, the launch of the rocket is imminent — and it could be a game-changer for SpaceX.

Here are all the details you need to know about this launch and why it’s such a big deal for both SpaceX and the industry.




What is the Falcon Heavy?

The essence of the rocket is right there in its name: it’s the heavy-lift version of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. The vehicle consists of three Falcon 9 cores strapped together, giving the rocket an awesome amount of power.

And since each Falcon 9 has nine main rocket engines, there are 27 total engines that will all be used to send this vehicle to space. No other working rocket has ever used so many.

All of this hardware can supposedly create more than 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff.

That makes the Falcon Heavy capable of putting around 140,000 pounds of cargo into lower Earth orbit, earning the title of the most powerful rocket in the world.

Where is it launching from?

The Falcon Heavy is taking off from a historic launch site at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, called LC-39A.

The site was used to launch the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon as well as numerous Space Shuttle missions — including the final Shuttle launch.

In 2014, SpaceX signed a 20-year lease with NASA to use the pad at 39A for the company’s flights, and it has since modified the site to accommodate launches of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy.

 

What is the Falcon Heavy going to do?

For the first Falcon Heavy flight, SpaceX is going to try to launch it to orbit without blowing up. This is a demonstration mission, meant to see if the Falcon Heavy can simply send a payload to orbit.

That’s why the rocket’s cargo is pretty silly: it’s Elon Musk’s Tesla roadster, made even sillier with the possible inclusion of a dummy in the passenger seat, dressed in a brand-new SpaceX suit, naturally.

The Falcon Heavy is supposed to put the car (as well as the passenger, presumably) into an orbit around the Sun known as a Hohmann transfer orbit.

This path will take the car as far out from the Sun as the distance of Mars’ orbit. However, the car won’t be going anywhere near Mars, so there’s no risk of the car contaminating the planet with Earth microbes.

What happens if it’s successful?

Then the Falcon Heavy has some more flights scheduled. The vehicle is booked to a put up a large communications satellite for operator Arabsat of Saudi Arabia sometime in early 2018.

And the Falcon Heavy is also slated to launch a test payload for the US Air Force no earlier than June.

That launch will allow the Air Force to judge whether or not the Falcon Heavy is ready to fly national security payloads, which could become a big market for the vehicle.

The flight will also contain a cluster of secondary satellites, too, including a special test spacecraft from the Planetary Society called LightSail.

The probe is designed to deploy a large, thin sail that uses radiation from the Sun to propel through space.

When is the launch happening?

The launch is currently scheduled to take off on Tuesday, February 6th, sometime during a launch window that spans from 1:30PM to 4PM ET.

However, this is the first flight of the Falcon Heavy — ever — so technological glitches could arise that push the launch back a couple of days.

Weather could also cause a delay, but there’s an 80 percent chance that weather will be favorable, according to Patrick Military Air Force Base at the Cape.

How can I watch the launch?

SpaceX will be live-streaming the mission on YouTube, which will be embedded in this post. Coverage should begin shortly before liftoff, so check back then to watch one of the most anticipated rocket launches in the last decade.

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Rocket Lab Has Reached The Orbit For The First Time

This weekend, US spaceflight startup Rocket Lab successfully launched its second Electron rocket for a crucial flight test — and reached orbit for the first time.

The Electron took off from the company’s New Zealand launch facility at 2:43PM local time on Sunday (or 8:43PM ET on Saturday), and about eight and a half minutes later, the rocket deployed three small commercial satellites.

It marks the first time the Electron has completed a full mission, and that may mean Rocket Lab is ready to start commercial flights of the vehicle.




Reaching orbit on a second test flight is significant on its own, but successfully deploying customer payloads so early in a new rocket program is almost unprecedented,” Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s CEO, said in a statement.

Rocket Lab was founded on the principal of opening access to space to better understand our planet and improve life on it. Today we took a significant step towards that.

Rocket Lab’s big ambition is to be a dedicated launcher of small satellites. That’s why the company’s Electron rocket isn’t very big itself.

It stands at just over 55 feet tall, a slight stature compared to SpaceX’s Falcon 9, which is a lofty 180 feet tall. And the Electron’s capacity is limited, only capable of getting between 330 and 500 pounds to lower Earth orbit.

For comparison, the Falcon 9 can get around 50,000 pounds to a similar orbit.

But demand for this type of small rocket has been high. Operators of tiny satellites don’t have many options to get to space, and typically have to hitch rides on launches of much bigger probes.

That’s not always ideal, since it means waiting for someone else launch and possibly going to a less-than-desirable orbit.

But with a launcher like the Electron, small satellite operators can potentially pay for an entire rocket ride for their hardware, and Rocket Lab says individual flights may start as low as $4.9 million.

The company says it already has a full manifest of customers waiting for trips.

Before customers can start flying, Rocket Lab needed to show that the Electron could do its job, and getting to orbit was a key goal of this test.

During the first flight test of the vehicle, appropriately called “It’s a Test,” the Electron made it to space but failed to make it to orbit.

Some communications equipment on the ground lost contact with the rocket during flight, causing the vehicle to abort its mission. Rocket Lab said that if the mishap hadn’t occurred, the Electron would have made it to orbit.

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NASA To Send Probe To Titan Or A Comet By 2025

NASA has picked two concepts for a solar system mission planned to launch in the mid-2020s — a comet sample return mission and a drone-like rotor-craft that would explore potential landing sites on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.

Which of these two mission will finally make it will be known only in 2019.

Both missions will receive funding through the end of 2018 to further develop and mature their concepts.

NASA plans to select one of these investigations in the spring of 2019 to continue on to subsequent mission phases,” the US space agency said on Wednesday.

These are tantalising investigations that seek to answer some of the biggest questions in our solar system today,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.




The Comet Astrobiology Exploration Sample Return (CAESAR) mission seeks to return a sample from 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, a comet that was successfully explored by the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft, to determine its origin and history.

The other selected mission, Dragonfly, is a drone-like rotorcraft that would explore the prebiotic chemistry and habitability of dozens of sites on Saturn’s moon Titan, an ocean world in our solar system.

NASA announced the concepts following an extensive and competitive peer review process.

The concepts were chosen from 12 proposals submitted in April under a New Frontiers programme announcement of opportunity.

The selected mission will be the fourth in NASA’s New Frontiers portfolio, a series of principal investigator-led planetary science investigations that fall under a development cost cap of approximately $850 million, NASA said.

Its predecessors are the New Horizons mission to Pluto and a Kuiper Belt object known as 2014 MU69, the Juno mission to Jupiter, and OSIRIS-REx, which will rendezvous with and return a sample of the asteroid Bennu.

NASA also announced the selection of two mission concepts that will receive technology development funds to prepare them for future mission competitions.

The concepts selected for technology development are – Enceladus Life Signatures and Habitability (ELSAH) and Venus In situ Composition Investigations (VICI)

The ELSAH mission concept will receive funds to develop cost-effective techniques that limit spacecraft contamination and thereby enable life detection measurements on cost-capped missions.

The VICI mission concept will further develop the Venus Element and Mineralogy Camera to operate under the harsh conditions on Venus.

The instrument uses lasers on a lander to measure the mineralogy and elemental composition of rocks on the surface of Venus.

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How SpaceX’s 2018 Moon Flight Will Work

Nearly 45 years after NASA astronauts last embarked on a lunar mission, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has announced his company’s plans to send two private citizens on a flight around the moon in 2018.

The weeklong trip will look a lot like NASA’s historic Apollo 8 mission, the first and only purely circumlunar, crewed mission in history.

Sut SpaceX’s mission will fly with two crewmembers instead of three, and will use a fresh new spacecraft and launch vehicle.




SpaceX’s new Falcon Heavy rocket will launch the crewed Dragon 2 spacecraft to the moon. The rocket and crew capsule have not flown on any missions yet.

But the Falcon Heavy is slated to blast off for its first test launch this summer, and the Dragon 2 will make its first test flight in November.

The Falcon Heavy is a variation of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, which was made to carry the uncrewed Dragon spacecraft to and from the International Space Station.

With two extra boosters strapped to its sides, the Falcon Heavy will be the most powerful rocket to blast off since NASA’s Saturn rockets, which were retired in the early 1970s.

Musk said the crewed Dragon spacecraft “would skim the surface of the moon” before heading “further out into deep space.” The spacecraft won’t literally touch the lunar surface, though.

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