All posts by Tom

Curiosity Update

A week or so ago we had a post about how the Curiosity team was going to “switch brains” on the Mars rover. NASA addressed the switch in a press release. The rover is again on the move – good news.

The image (thanks NASA/JPL-Caltech) is from 15 June 2018, before the sandstorm.

NASA : NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover drove about 197 feet (60 meters) over the weekend to a site called Lake Orcadie, pushing its total odometry to over 12 miles (20 kilometers). This was Curiosity’s longest drive since experiencing a memory anomaly on Sept. 15. The rover switched to a spare computer, called the Side-A computer, on Oct. 3.

After more than two weeks of science operations, and now with this latest drive, the mission is back to business. The team plans to drill a new target later this week.

Curiosity’s engineering team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory continues to diagnose the anomaly on the Side-B computer.

Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, this week commanded the agency’s Curiosity rover to switch to its second computer. The switch will enable engineers to do a detailed diagnosis of a technical issue that has prevented the rover’s active computer from storing science and some key engineering data since Sept. 15.

Like many NASA spacecraft, Curiosity was designed with two, redundant computers — in this case, referred to as a Side-A and a Side-B computer — so that it can continue operations if one experiences a glitch. After reviewing several options, JPL engineers recommended that the rover switch from Side B to Side A, the computer the rover used initially after landing.

The rover continues to send limited engineering data stored in short-term memory when it connects to a relay orbiter. It is otherwise healthy and receiving commands. But whatever is preventing Curiosity from storing science data in long-term memory is also preventing the storage of the rover’s event records, a journal of all its actions that engineers need in order to make a diagnosis. The computer swap will allow data and event records to be stored on the Side-A computer.

Side A experienced hardware and software issues over five years ago on sol 200 of the mission, leaving the rover uncommandable and running down its battery. At that time, the team successfully switched to Side B. Engineers have since diagnosed and quarantined the part of Side A’s memory that was affected so that computer is again available to support the mission.

“At this point, we’re confident we’ll be getting back to full operations, but it’s too early to say how soon,” said Steven Lee of JPL, Curiosity’s deputy project manager. “We are operating on Side A starting today, but it could take us time to fully understand the root cause of the issue and devise workarounds for the memory on Side B.

“We spent the last week checking out Side A and preparing it for the swap,” Lee said. “It’s certainly possible to run the mission on the Side-A computer if we really need to. But our plan is to switch back to Side B as soon as we can fix the problem to utilize its larger memory size.”

European Space Weather Week

The 15th annual European Space Weather Week is here. To that end here is an example of space weather, an aurora, on the planet Uranus.  It will be interesting to see what comes from ESWW this time around.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen a proper aurora and it’s likely to be a while until I do. Solar Activity is very low and the Sun for the most part is spotless. You can get a current image and more from a great page maintained by Canadian Amateur Radio Station VE3EN (73 to the op) called

The great image comes to us from: ESA/Hubble & NASA, L. Lamy / Observatoire de Paris

ESA: On the first day of the 15th annual European Space Weather Week, this image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope fittingly shows a striking occurrence of celestial weather in the outer reaches of the Solar System: an aurora on Uranus.

Auroras, also known as polar lights, are a relatively familiar type of space weather to Earth-based stargazers, but have also been spied on many other planets in the Solar System.

Views of the Earth’s Northern and Southern Lights show glowing sheets and rippling waves of bright light painting the sky in striking shades of green and even red, blue, and purple; these breath-taking scenes are created as streams of energetic charged particles hit the upper layers of Earth’s atmosphere at altitudes of up to a few hundreds of kilometres, and interact with resident atoms and molecules of mostly oxygen and nitrogen. These emit photons at specific visible wavelengths or colours – green and red for oxygen, blue and purple for nitrogen – and fill the sky with an eerie auroral glow.

Hubble has observed auroras on Uranus on various occasions: in 2011, when the telescope became the first to image the phenomenon from the vicinity of Earth, then again in 2012 and 2014, taking extra data beyond visible light.

By pointing Hubble’s ultraviolet eye on Uranus twice during the same month, from 1 to 5 and 22 to 24 November 2014, scientists were able to determine that the planet’s glimmering auroras rotate along with the planet. The observations also helped to locate Uranus’ magnetic poles, and allowed scientists to track two so-called interplanetary shocks that propagated through the Solar System. These shocks were triggered by two powerful bursts of material flung out by the Sun via the solar wind, an ongoing flow of charged particles constantly emanating from our star, and caused the most intense auroras ever seen on Uranus.

This image, originally published in 2017, shows the auroras as wispy patches of white against the planet’s azure blue disc, and combines optical and ultraviolet observations from Hubble with archive data from NASA’s Voyager 2 probe. Voyager 2 was the first and only craft to visit the outermost planets in the Solar System; it flew past Uranus in January 1986, and past Neptune in August 1989. These icy planets have not been visited since. NASA and ESA have been studying a possible joint mission that would target the two ice giant planets in order to explore their intriguing role in our planetary system.

European Space Weather Week runs from 5 to 9 November 2018, and brings together engineers, scientists, specialists, and professionals from across the continent in order to exchange news, ideas, and strategies on space weather and protecting Earth’s cosmic environment.

The Airbus Team

NASA – The Airbus team poses with the European Service Module during preparations for shipment to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. The module is scheduled to depart Germany on November 5, arriving at Kennedy on November 6. For the first time, NASA will use a European-built system as a critical element to power an American spacecraft, extending the international cooperation of the International Space Station into deep space.

The European Service Module is a unique collaboration across space agencies and industry including ESA’s prime contractor, Airbus, and 10 European countries. The completion of service module work in Europe and shipment to Kennedy signifies a major milestone toward NASA’s human deep space exploration missions.

On Friday, Nov. 16, an event at Kennedy Space Center and live on NASA Television will mark the module’s arrival. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and ESA (European Space Agency) Director General Jan Wörner, as well as other senior leaders from NASA and ESA will discuss the international cooperation needed to send humans to the Moon and Mars.

Image Credit: NASA/Rad Sinyak

November Skies

Great month for sky watching, Around these parts one has to pick their days because it is the cloudiest month of the year; but when the sky is clear the viewing tends to be excellent!

Hoping for those clear skies for the Leonids!

The Sun Sets on DAWN

Launched in 2007 the DAWN mission is now over, the spacecraft has gone silent. Great mission!

“Today, we celebrate the end of our Dawn mission – its incredible technical achievements, the vital science it gave us, and the entire team who enabled the spacecraft to make these discoveries,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “The astounding images and data that Dawn collected from Vesta and Ceres are critical to understanding the history and evolution of our solar system.” — NASA

New Views of Bennu from OSIRIS-REx

Nice algorithm to combine a rotating target! I wonder how big the file size is and what it takes to run it.

NASA – This “super-resolution” view of asteroid Bennu was created using eight images obtained by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on Oct. 29, 2018, from a distance of about 205 miles (330 km). The spacecraft was moving as it captured the images with the PolyCam camera, and Bennu rotated 1.2 degrees during the nearly one minute that elapsed between the first and the last snapshot. The team used a super-resolution algorithm to combine the eight images and produce a higher resolution view of the asteroid. Bennu occupies about 100 pixels and is oriented with its north pole at the top of the image.

Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

Kepler Retires

After more than nine-years the Kepler spacecraft is out of fuel and has been retired. What a mission it was too, click the graphic NASA put together and view some the the accomplishments including more than 2,600 new planets found.

NASA: After nine years in deep space collecting data that indicate our sky to be filled with billions of hidden planets – more planets even than stars – NASA’s Kepler space telescope has run out of fuel needed for further science operations. NASA has decided to retire the spacecraft within its current, safe orbit, away from Earth. Kepler leaves a legacy of more than 2,600 planet discoveries from outside our solar system, many of which could be promising places for life.

“As NASA’s first planet-hunting mission, Kepler has wildly exceeded all our expectations and paved the way for our exploration and search for life in the solar system and beyond,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Not only did it show us how many planets could be out there, it sparked an entirely new and robust field of research that has taken the science community by storm. Its discoveries have shed a new light on our place in the universe, and illuminated the tantalizing mysteries and possibilities among the stars.”

Kepler has opened our eyes to the diversity of planets that exist in our galaxy. The most recent analysis of Kepler’s discoveries concludes that 20 to 50 percent of the stars visible in the night sky are likely to have small, possibly rocky, planets similar in size to Earth, and located within the habitable zone of their parent stars. That means they’re located at distances from their parent stars where liquid water – a vital ingredient to life as we know it – might pool on the planet surface.

The most common size of planet Kepler found doesn’t exist in our solar system – a world between the size of Earth and Neptune – and we have much to learn about these planets. Kepler also found nature often produces jam-packed planetary systems, in some cases with so many planets orbiting close to their parent stars that our own inner solar system looks sparse by comparison.

“When we started conceiving this mission 35 years ago we didn’t know of a single planet outside our solar system,” said the Kepler mission’s founding principal investigator, William Borucki, now retired from NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. “Now that we know planets are everywhere, Kepler has set us on a new course that’s full of promise for future generations to explore our galaxy.”

Launched on March 6, 2009, the Kepler space telescope combined cutting-edge techniques in measuring stellar brightness with the largest digital camera outfitted for outer space observations at that time. Originally positioned to stare continuously at 150,000 stars in one star-studded patch of the sky in the constellation Cygnus, Kepler took the first survey of planets in our galaxy and became the agency’s first mission to detect Earth-size planets in the habitable zones of their stars.

“The Kepler mission was based on a very innovative design. It was an extremely clever approach to doing this kind of science,” said Leslie Livesay, director for astronomy and physics at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who served as Kepler project manager during mission development. “There were definitely challenges, but Kepler had an extremely talented team of scientists and engineers who overcame them.”

Four years into the mission, after the primary mission objectives had been met, mechanical failures temporarily halted observations. The mission team was able to devise a fix, switching the spacecraft’s field of view roughly every three months. This enabled an extended mission for the spacecraft, dubbed K2, which lasted as long as the first mission and bumped Kepler’s count of surveyed stars up to more than 500,000.

The observation of so many stars has allowed scientists to better understand stellar behaviors and properties, which is critical information in studying the planets that orbit them. New research into stars with Kepler data also is furthering other areas of astronomy, such as the history of our Milky Way galaxy and the beginning stages of exploding stars called supernovae that are used to study how fast the universe is expanding. The data from the extended mission were also made available to the public and science community immediately, allowing discoveries to be made at an incredible pace and setting a high bar for other missions. Scientists are expected to spend a decade or more in search of new discoveries in the treasure trove of data Kepler provided.

“We know the spacecraft’s retirement isn’t the end of Kepler’s discoveries,” said Jessie Dotson, Kepler’s project scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. “I’m excited about the diverse discoveries that are yet to come from our data and how future missions will build upon Kepler’s results.”

Before retiring the spacecraft, scientists pushed Kepler to its full potential, successfully completing multiple observation campaigns and downloading valuable science data even after initial warnings of low fuel. The latest data, from Campaign 19, will complement the data from NASA’s newest planet hunter, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, launched in April. TESS builds on Kepler’s foundation with fresh batches of data in its search of planets orbiting some 200,000 of the brightest and nearest stars to the Earth, worlds that can later be explored for signs of life by missions, such as NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.

NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley manages the Kepler and K2 missions for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, managed Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation in Boulder, Colorado, operates the flight system with support from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder.


What now for Kepler? Glad you asked:

Parker Probe Sets Record

The Parker Solar Probe set a new record for being the closest “human-made” object to the Sun and it hasn’t reached perihelion yet – that comes on 31 Oct.

The Parker Solar Probe probably has broken a speed record (waiting for confirmation) and the old record is 153,454 mph / 246,960 kmh.

I am looking forward to seeing how the heat shield works out.

NASA: Parker Solar Probe now holds the record for closest approach to the Sun by a human-made object. The spacecraft passed the current record of 26.55 million miles from the Sun’s surface on Oct. 29, 2018, at about 1:04 p.m. EDT, as calculated by the Parker Solar Probe team.

The previous record for closest solar approach was set by the German-American Helios 2 spacecraft in April 1976. As the Parker Solar Probe mission progresses, the spacecraft will repeatedly break its own records, with a final close approach of 3.83 million miles from the Sun’s surface expected in 2024.

“It’s been just 78 days since Parker Solar Probe launched, and we’ve now come closer to our star than any other spacecraft in history,” said Project Manager Andy Driesman, from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. “It’s a proud moment for the team, though we remain focused on our first solar encounter, which begins on Oct. 31.”

Parker Solar Probe is also expected to break the record for fastest spacecraft traveling relative to the Sun on Oct. 29 at about 10:54 p.m. EDT. The current record for heliocentric speed is 153,454 miles per hour, set by Helios 2 in April 1976.

The Parker Solar Probe team periodically measures the spacecraft’s precise speed and position using NASA’s Deep Space Network, or DSN. The DSN sends a signal to the spacecraft, which then retransmits it back to the DSN, allowing the team to determine the spacecraft’s speed and position based on the timing and characteristics of the signal. Parker Solar Probe’s speed and position were calculated using DSN measurements made on Oct. 24, and the team used that information along with known orbital forces to calculate the spacecraft’s speed and position from that point on.

Parker Solar Probe will begin its first solar encounter on Oct. 31, continuing to fly closer and closer to the Sun’s surface until it reaches its first perihelion — the point closest to the Sun — at about 10:28 p.m. EST on Nov. 5. The spacecraft will face brutal heat and radiation conditions while providing humanity with unprecedentedly close-up observations of a star and helping us understand phenomena that have puzzled scientists for decades. These observations will add key knowledge to NASA’s efforts to understand the Sun, where changing conditions can propagate out into the solar system, affecting Earth and other worlds.