Tag: Spacecraft

NASA Spacecraft Finds Water In Search For Origins Of Life On Asteroid

A NASA spacecraft that just arrived last December 2018 on an asteroid has already made its first big discovery: ingredients for water.

Scientists hope that the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will shed light on the mysteries of Bennu, an asteroid the size of a skyscraper that could hold clues to the origins of life on Earth.

The craft only arrived at the asteroid in recent days but the discovery of water is a major breakthrough that scientists hope can be matched by more discoveries in the future.

It was found when OSIRIS-REx flew close to the asteroid and picked up traces of hydrogen and oxygen molecules in its rocky surface. Those make up part of the recipe for water – itself a key ingredient in life itself.




The probe, on a mission to return samples from the asteroid to Earth for study, was launched in 2016. Bennu, roughly a third of a mile wide (500 meters), orbits the sun at roughly the same distance as Earth.

There is concern among scientists about the possibility of Bennu impacting Earth late in the 22nd century.

We have found the water-rich minerals from the early solar system, which is exactly the kind of sample we were going out there to find and ultimately bring back to Earth,” University of Arizona planetary scientist Dante Lauretta, the OSIRIS-REx mission’s principal investigator, said in a telephone interview.

Asteroids are among the leftover debris from the solar system’s formation some 4.5 billion years ago.

Scientists believe asteroids and comets crashing into early Earth may have delivered organic compounds and water that seeded the planet for life, and atomic-level analysis of samples from Bennu could provide key evidence to support that hypothesis.

OSIRIS-REx will pass later this month just 1.2 miles (1.9 km) from Bennu, entering the asteroid’s gravitational pull and analyzing its terrain.

From there, the spacecraft will begin to gradually tighten its orbit around the asteroid, spiraling to within just 6 feet (2 meters) of its surface so its robot arm can snatch a sample of Bennu by July 2020.

The spacecraft will later fly back to Earth, jettisoning a capsule bearing the asteroid specimen for a parachute descent in the Utah desert in September 2023.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

China’s First Plants to Grow on the Moon Are Already Dead

One day after China announced it grew the first plants on the Moon, the fledgling plants have been pronounced dead. Rest in peace, lunar sprouts.

On Tuesday, China’s space program said that cotton seeds had germinated in a biosphere carried to the Moon by the nation’s Chang’e-4 lunar lander.

By Wednesday, mission leads had broken the news that the plants perished as the lunar night fell over the probe’s landing site.

The Sunday arrival of the lunar night, which lasts 14 days, deprived the plants of sunlight. During a lunar night, temperatures can plummet as low as −170°C (−274°F).

Meanwhile, daytime temperatures on the Moon can reach a sweltering 127°C (260°F). These massive fluctuations are one of the main obstacles encountered by lunar explorers.

The remaining seeds and fruit fly eggs contained in the mission’s biosphere are not likely to be viable after two weeks of light deprivation and freezing temperatures.




According to China’s National Space Administration, they will decompose and remain sealed to avoid contaminating the lunar surface.

Chang’e-4 went into sleep mode on Sunday to prepare for the harsh night. The lander will rely on a radioisotope heat unit (RHU) to stay warm until sunlight returns in late January.

The mission’s rover Yutu 2, which rolled off a ramp to the lunar surface on January 3, is also dependent on an RHU during the cold spell.

Chang’e-4 is the first spacecraft ever to land on the far side of the Moon, which is commonly mistaken for the “dark” side of the Moon.

Though the far side is always angled away from Earth, it is not always angled away from the Sun. Both lunar faces experience roughly 14 days of daylight and 14 days of darkness in a regular lunar cycle.

Chang-e-4’s biosphere may have only survived for a brief week, but it still made history as the first garden planted at the surface of an alien world.

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China Makes Historic First Landing on Mysterious Far Side of the Moon

Humanity just planted its flag on the far side of the moon.

China’s robotic Chang’e 4 mission touched down on the floor of the 115-mile-wide (186 kilometers) Von Kármán Crater Wednesday night (Jan. 2), pulling off the first-ever soft landing on the mysterious lunar far side.

Chang’e 4 will perform a variety of science work over the coming months, potentially helping scientists better understand the structure, formation and evolution of Earth’s natural satellite.

But the symbolic pull of the mission will resonate more with the masses: The list of unexplored locales in our solar system just got a little shorter.




The epic touchdown—which took place at 9:26 p.m. EST (0226 GMT and 10:26 a.m. Beijing time on Jan. 3), according to Chinese space officials—followed closely on the heels of two big NASA spaceflight milestones.

On Dec. 31, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft entered orbit around the near-Earth asteroid Bennu, and the New Horizons probe zoomed past the distant object Ultima Thule just after midnight on Jan. 1.

Congratulations to China’s Chang’e 4 team for what appears to be a successful landing on the far side of the moon. This is a first for humanity and an impressive accomplishment!”

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said via Twitter Wednesday night, after word of the milestone began circulating on social media.

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First Photo Show China’s Lunar Rover Set Out Across The Far Side of The Moon

China’s far-side moon rover is already busy exploring its exotic new home.

On Wednesday night (Jan. 2), the Chang’e 4 rover and its stationary-lander companion pulled off the first-ever soft touchdown on the lunar far side, coming to a rest inside the 115-mile-wide (186 kilometers) Von Kármán Crater.

The six-wheeled rover, known as Yutu 2, isn’t pausing to catch its breath, as a newly released photo shows.

Yutu 2 has already put a fair bit of space between itself and the lander, trundling over near the rim of a small crater on the floor of Von Kármán, which itself lies within an even larger impact feature — the 1,550-mile-wide (2,500 km) South Pole-Aitken Basin.

Both Yutu 2 and the lander sport four science instruments, which they’ll use to study the surrounding dirt and rocks and probe the far side’s subsurface.




Such observations could help scientists better understand the moon’s composition, structure and evolution, Chinese space officials have said.

Chang’e 4’s images and data come home via a relay satellite called Queqiao, which is parked at a gravitationally stable spot beyond the moon.

Queqiao, which launched in May 2018, is collecting some data of its own. The spacecraft totes an astronomy instrument, and it has sent home striking images of the moon and Earth from its unique vantage point in space.

The solar-powered Yutu 2 is designed to operate for at least three months on the lunar surface. The original Yutu was also a moon rover, which landed on the near side in December 2013 as part of China’s Chang’e 3 mission.

Chang’e 1 and Chang’e 2 were moon orbiters that launched in 2007 and 2010, respectively. Chang’e 5, which could launch as early as this year, will aim to bring moon rocks and dirt down to Earth.

The most recent such lunar sample-return flight was achieved in 1976, by the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission.

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How to Mine Water on Mars to Survive on The Red Planet

The bone-dry desert of present-day Mars may seem like the last place you would look for water, but the Red Planet actually contains a wealth of water locked up in ice.

Evidence that Mars once supported liquid water has been mounting for years, and exploratory missions have found that water ice still exists on the planet’s poles and just beneath its dusty surface.

Accessing that water could require digging it up and baking it in an oven, or beaming microwaves at the soil and extracting the water vapor.

Yet no mission has attempted to extract water on Mars or any celestial body beyond Earth in appreciable quantities.

Now, the Netherlands-based organization Mars One, which wants to establish a permanent human settlement on the Red Planet, is planning to send an unmanned lander to Mars in 2018 that would carry an experiment to demonstrate that water extraction is possible.




Mined water could be used for drinking, growing plants or creating fuel.

Here on Earth, we’ve experimented with different technologies to extract moisture out of the atmosphere or soil,” said Ed Sedivy, civil space chief engineer at the security and aerospace company Lockheed Martin and program manager for NASA’s Phoenix lander flight system.

The question is, Sedivy said, “At the concentration of water we’re likely to encounter and the temperatures we’re likely to encounter [on Mars], how do we validate those technologies are appropriate?”

H2O on the Red Planet

Numerous studies have suggested that water exists on Mars, based on evidence from Mars orbiters and rovers such as outflow channels, ancient lakebeds, and surface rocks and minerals that could only have formed in the presence of liquid water.

Today, Mars is too frigid, and its atmospheric pressure is too low, to support liquid water on its surface — except for very short spans of time at low altitudes — but frozen water can be found in the planet’s ice caps and beneath the soil surface.

NASA’s Phoenix lander detected water ice at its landing site in 2008. The spacecraft dug up chunks of soil, and its onboard mass spectrometer found traces of water vapor when the sample was heated above freezing.

More recently, NASA’s Curiosity rover detected water molecules in soil samples analyzed by its SAM instruments, suggesting Martian soil contains about two pints of water per cubic foot of soil.

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NASA’s First Up-Close Images Of The Most Distant Object Ever Explored

NASA’s New Horizons’ team released the first close-up images from Ultima Thule on Wednesday afternoon.

Even at the speed of light, signals from the outer solar system take a long time to reach Earth; however, the pictures were well worth the wait.

They reveal Ultima Thule is actually two objects stuck together. That’s prompted them to dub the big lobe “Ultima” and the small one “Thule.”

And while the first images may still be a bit disappointing, the best pictures will be arriving in the days and weeks ahead.

We have far less than one percent of the data that’s stored on [New Horizons],” spacecraft lead Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute said at a press conference Wednesday.




New Year’s flyby

As billions of people across the world ushered in the new year, the New Horizons spacecraft whizzed by a far-flung space rock named Ultima Thule, making it the most distant object ever visited by humanity.

Traveling at a speed of nearly 9 miles (14.5 kilometers) per second, New Horizons’ didn’t take long to zip past Ultima Thule, which is only about 20 miles (30 km) long and 10 miles (15 km) wide.

During its closest approach at 12:33 a.m. EST on January 1, New Horizons passed within just 2,200 miles (3,500 km) of the mysterious bowling-pin-shaped rock, collecting data all the while.

Within just 10 hours, at 10:28 a.m. EST, the spacecraft successfully “phoned home,” confirming to NASA scientists that it had survived its close encounter with the distant object.

Since New Horizons sent its first post-flyby message, the mission team slowly but surely has been receiving a trickle of data on Ultima Thule (pronounced TOOL-ee, a Latin phrase meaning “a place beyond the known world”), which is located a staggering 4.1 billion miles (6.6 billion km) from Earth.

What we know so far

Ultima Thule is tiny, icy body known as a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO). KBOs are a distinct class of solar system objects that lie far beyond the orbits of Neptune and Pluto.

Although over a thousand KBOs already have been discovered Ultima Thule wasn’t found until 2014.

Because Ultima Thule is so small and distant, it’s very hard for researchers to tease out many of its attributes, even with the most advanced telescopes available today.

But from early on, astronomers figured the small body was likely made of dirty ice and rock.

Early observations of Ultima Thule taken by New Horizons suggested that the rock is rather elongated and shaped somewhat like a bowling pin.

Today’s imagery reveal that the world is actually two objects which were stuck together in a slow cosmic collision.

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The Story Behind Our Planet’s Most Famous Photo

 

The crew of the Apollo 8 spacecraft (Bill Anders, 3rd left) following the lunar orbital mission, 27 December 1968.

This photograph is now half a century old. It was taken by the astronaut Bill Anders on Christmas Eve 1968 as the Apollo 8 spacecraft rounded the dark side of the moon for a fourth time.

When Earth came up over the horizon, Anders scrabbled for his Hasselblad camera and started clicking.

In that pre-digital age, five days passed. The astronauts returned to Earth; the film was retrieved and developed.

In its new year edition, Life magazine printed the photo on a double-page spread alongside a poem by US poet laureate James Dickey: “And behold / The blue planet steeped in its dream / Of reality, its calculated vision shaking with the only love.”

This was not quite the first look at our world from space. Lunar probes had sent back crudely scanned images of a crescent Earth shrouded in cloud.

A satellite had even taken a colour photo that, in the autumn of 1968, the radical entrepreneur Stewart Brand put on the cover of his first Whole Earth Catalog.

The next edition, in spring 1969, used Anders’s photograph, by now known as Earthrise.




Brand’s catalogue was a DIY manual for the Californian counterculture, a crowdsourced compendium of life hacks about backpacking, home weaving, tantra art and goat husbandry.

Its one-world, eco ethos was a weird offshoot of the macho tech of the space age – those hunks of aluminium run on rocket fuel and cold war rivalries.

But then looking back at Earth was itself a weird offshoot of the moon missions.

It just happened that Apollo 8’s aim – to locate the best lunar landing sites – needed high-res photography, which was also good for taking pictures of planets a quarter of a million miles away.

When Bill Anders took this photograph from the Apollo spacecraft on Christmas Eve in 1968, our relationship with the world changed forever

The Earth pictured in Earthrise looks unlike traditional cartographic globes that mark out land and sea along lines of latitude and longitude.

Slightly more than half the planet is illuminated. The line dividing night and day severs Africa. Earth looks as if it is floating alone in the eternal night of space, each part awaiting its share of the life-giving light of the sun.

Apart from a small brown patch of equatorial Africa, the planet is blue and white. At first glance it seems to have the sheen of blue-veined marble.

But look closer and that spherical perfection softens a little. Earth divulges its true state as oceanic and atmospheric, warmly welcoming and achingly vulnerable.

The Apollo 8 crew (from left) Frank Borman, James Lovell and Bill Anders

The blue is light scattered by the sea and sky. The white is the gaseous veneer that coats our planet and lets us live.

You can just make out the “beautiful blue halo”, with its gentle shift from tender blue to purple black, that Yuri Gagarin noticed on his first low-orbit flight.

That halo is our fragile biosphere, and is all that stands between us and the suffocating void.

Still, Earthrise must have changed something. What’s seen can’t be unseen. Perhaps it flits across your mind when you open Google Earth and see that familiar virtual globe gently spinning.

The non-human version of Earthrise from Lunar Orbiter in 1966.

Just before you click and drag to fly yourself to some portion of the world no bigger than an allotment, you may briefly take in, with a little stomach lurch, that this slowly revolving sphere holds close to 8 billion people, living out lives as small and short and yet meaningful as the universe is infinite and eternal and yet meaningless.

On that gigantic, glistening marble, mottled with blue-white swirls, lies everyone.

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All Four Last Tuesday Rocket Launches Postponed

If you’re a space fan, Christmas comes a week early this year. There are four — count ’em, four! — launches scheduled to take place last Tuesday (Dec. 18), and you can watch them all live.

The action begins in the morning with a one-two punch. At 9:34 a.m. EST (1434 GMT), SpaceX plans to launch a next-generation GPS satellite for the U.S. Air Force from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Nineteen minutes later, at 9:30 a.m. EST (1430 GMT), Blue Origin’s suborbital New Shepard capsule will take to the skies from West Texas on the 10th uncrewed test flight of the reusable vehicle.

You can watch both missions live here at Space.com, or directly via SpaceX and Blue Origin.

Then, at 11:37 a.m. EST (1637 GMT), an Arianespace Soyuz rocket will loft a spy satellite for the French military called CSO-1. You can watch that liftoff, which will take place from Kourou, French Guiana, at Arianespace’s website.

Another spysat launch will wrap things up tonight. A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy rocket carrying the classified NROL-71 spacecraft for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office is scheduled to lift off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 8:57 p.m. EST (5:57 p.m. local California time; 0157 GMT on Dec. 19).




You can watch that one live on Space.com as well, or directly via ULA (though it appears the weather may not cooperate for an on-time liftoff).

There will be another flurry of spaceflight activity around the new year. NASA’s asteroid-sampling OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, which has been flying along with the space rock Bennu since Dec. 3, will slip into orbit around that object on Dec. 31.

Just hours later, NASA’s New Horizons probe will zoom past the small, distant object Ultima Thule, which lies about 1 billion miles (1.6 billion kilometers) beyond Pluto.

That dwarf planet was New Horizons’ first flyby target, you probably recall; the spacecraft cruised past Pluto in July 2015, returning stunning images of water-ice mountains, vast plains of nitrogen ice and other dramatic landscapes.

And sometime in the first few days of January, China’s Chang’e 4 mission will drop onto the far side of the moon, if all goes according to plan.

Chang’e 4, which launched on Dec. 7, consists of a lander and rover, which will touch down within the huge South Pole-Aitken Basin. No probe has ever touched down on the lunar far side, which always faces away from Earth.

Update for Dec. 19: After all four launches scheduled for Tuesday were delayed, SpaceX and Blue Origin have again postponed their launches. Arianespace and United Launch Alliance are on track for a Dec. 19 launch, while the Indian Space Research Organisation successfully launched its GSAT-7A communications satellite into orbit.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

NASA Craft Shows Tiny Asteroid Studded With Boulders

NASA’s first look at a tiny asteroid shows the space rock is more moist and studded with boulders than originally thought.

Scientists released the first morsels of data collected since their spacecraft Osiris-Rex hooked up last week with the asteroid Bennu, which is only about three blocks wide and weighs about 80 million tons.

Bennu regularly crosses Earth’s orbit and will come perilously close in about 150 years. There is no liquid water on the asteroid, but there is plenty of it in the form of wet clay.

Project scientist Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona said the blueish space rock is “a little more rugged of an environment than we expected” with hundreds of 10-metre boulders, instead of just one or two.

There’s also a bigger 50-metre boulder which looks like two cones put together with a bulge on its waistline.

Scientists think Bennu is a leftover from the beginning of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago when planets tried to form and some failed.

Mr Lauretta said it looks like Bennu was once a chunk of a bigger asteroid that probably had water in it.




When Osiris-Rex starts orbiting Bennu in January — no easy feat since its gravity is 100,000 times less than Earth’s — it will be the smallest object that a human-made spacecraft has circled.

Scientists will spend a year scouting the space rock for a good location and then in 2020 it will dive close to the surface and a robotic arm will shoot nitrogen puffs into the soil and collect grains of dirt.

Those asteroid bits will be returned to Earth in 2023.

The 800 million dollar (£636 million) Osiris-Rex mission began with a 2016 launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Its odometer read 1.2 billion miles last week.

The spacecraft and asteroid names come from Egyptian mythology. Osiris is the god of the afterlife, while Bennu represents the heron and creation.

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NASA Probe Arrives at Asteroid Bennu on Monday

I hope you’re not all partied out after the InSight lander’s successful touchdown on Mars this week, because there’s another big spaceflight event just around the corner.

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe will officially arrive at the near-Earth asteroid Bennu at about 12 p.m. EST (1700 GMT) today, Monday (Dec. 3), ending a 27-month deep-space chase.

NASA will mark the occasion with a special webcast event from 11:45 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. EST (1645 to 1715 GMT), which you can watch live here at Space.com, courtesy of NASA TV.

The space agency will also air an “arrival preview program” at 11:15 a.m. EST (1615 GMT). You can catch that here at Space.com as well.

The $800 million OSIRIS-REx mission launched on Sept. 8, 2016, embarking on a looping trek toward the 1,640-foot-wide (500 meters) Bennu.

Upon arrival, the probe will take up a position about 12 miles (20 kilometers) from the space rock, NASA officials said.

OSIRIS-REx will then fly by Bennu repeatedly over the next four weeks, gathering data that will help mission team members establish the asteroid’s mass.

With this information in hand, OSIRIS-REx will slide into orbit around the space rock on Dec. 31 — just hours before NASA’s New Horizons probe cruises past the distant object Ultima Thule, billions of miles from Earth.




The diamond-shaped Bennu will then become the smallest object ever to be orbited by a spacecraft.

OSIRIS-REx will study the rock from orbit for the next 18 months or so and then make its way down to Bennu’s surface to grab a sizeable sample of material in mid-2020.

The spacecraft will depart the asteroid in March 2021, and the sample will come down to Earth in a special return capsule in September 2023.

Scientists around the world will study this material, looking for clues about the role that carbon-rich asteroids such as Bennu may have played in bringing the building blocks of life to Earth.

OSIRIS-REx — which is short for “Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer” — will also make significant contributions in other ways, mission team members have said.

For example, the probe’s measurements should help researchers better understand the resource potential of Bennu-like space rocks.

And other data will increase knowledge of how asteroids move through space, which in turn should improve predictions of where hazardous rocks are headed.

Bennu is itself a potentially dangerous asteroid; there’s a very small probability that it could hit Earth in the late 22nd century.

OSIRIS-REx isn’t the only active asteroid-sampling mission. Japan’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft is currently orbiting the 3,000-foot-wide (900 m) Ryugu, which shares Bennu’s diamond shape.

Hayabusa2 will grab a Ryugu sample next year and return it to Earth in late 2020, if all goes according to plan.

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