All posts by Tom

October Skies – 2018

In the northern hemisphere October is typically a month of great viewing (and seeing). So far around these parts that does not seem to be the case. It’s early though so I am hoping for an improvement because November is TERRIBLE – cloudiest month of the year.

Venus Flyby #1 – Complete

The Parker Solar Probe flew past Venus at a distance of just 2414 km / 1500 miles. The 03 October encounter was of course by design and was the first of seven flybys of Venus and will use gravity assists to tighten up the orbit around the Sun as the illustration shows (credit: NASA).

Mission managers will use the flight data to plan the next six flybys which will occur over the course of the seven-year mission.

NASA’s Asteroid Encounter

NASA’s Osiris-REx is basically “on approach” to asteroid Bennu, and so far everything seems to proceeding nicely.

NASA — NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft executed its first Asteroid Approach Maneuver (AAM-1) today putting it on course for its scheduled arrival at the asteroid Bennu in December. The spacecraft’s main engine thrusters fired in a braking maneuver designed to slow the spacecraft’s speed relative to Bennu from approximately 1,100 mph (491 m/sec) to 313 mph (140 m/sec). The mission team will continue to examine telemetry and tracking data as they become available and will have more information on the results of the maneuver over the next week.

During the next six weeks, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will continue executing the series of asteroid approach maneuvers designed to fly the spacecraft through a precise corridor during its final slow approach to Bennu. The last of these, AAM-4, scheduled for Nov. 12, will adjust the spacecraft’s trajectory to arrive at a position 12 miles (20 km) from Bennu on Dec. 3. After arrival, the spacecraft will initiate asteroid proximity operations by performing a series of fly-bys over Bennu’s poles and equator

Credits: University of Arizona

The First “A” in NASA

NASA had this on their website yesterday to mark their 60th birthday with a look back to their roots.

“A” is for aeronautics. This is a classic image from the early days, credit: NASA/Robert G.Ferguson.

Here is the original caption (Yvette Smith):

NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, is more than a space agency. Aeronautics, the first A of the NASA acronym, has always been a part of the agency, but against the headline exploits of rocket launches, Moon landings, space shuttle missions, and Mars rovers, aeronautics is sometimes lost in the shadows of NASA’s marquee space programs. This relative obscurity belies what has been a remarkably creative, productive and highly effective group of researchers who, at one time, even helped bring about the Space Age and invent a space agency.

Aeronautics really might be called the “other NASA,” distinct in its charge, methodologies and scale. Aeronautics research is not mission-oriented in the same way that going to the Moon or Mars is. It is interested in learning about physical phenomena, such as turbulence, and how to do something, such as quieting the noise of helicopter blades.

This is fitting, as today we celebrate NASA’s 60th anniversary  — the agency came into being on Oct. 1, 1958. When it began, NASA absorbed the facilities and personnel of the NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Centers like Langley and Ames and others predate the creation of NASA, but the expertise of the scientists of the NACA were needed to create a distinct agency that encompassed aeronautics and aerospace activities.

Currently, NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate has four research programs that continue to develop advanced technologies to reduce aviation’s environmental impact and transform the way the public flies.

This image from March 1962 shows an X-15 aircraft model, as shock waves surround the small scale object in the Langley Research Center’s 4 x 4 Supersonic Pressure Tunnel.

A Selfie Shadow

Now THAT is a selfie, even if it is a shadow.  Even the surface of asteroid Ryugu is a pretty amazing image but add in the shadow – Wow!

Image: JAXA via ESA

Original caption:    On 21 September 2018, 280 million km from Earth, a roughly 1.5 square-metre cube descended towards a primitive space rock. After years of planning and 4 years in flight, this tiny spacecraft captured this ‘shadow selfie’ as it closed in on asteroid Ryugu, just 80 metres from the remnant of our Solar System’s formation, 4.6 billion years ago.

The Hayabusa2 spacecraft is operated by the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA), supported in part by ESA’s Estrack Malargüe deep-space tracking station. The spacecraft carries four small landers that will investigate the asteroid’s surface, all four designed to gently fall onto the surface of the rocky boulder, taking advantage of its low gravity environment.

Around the time this remarkable picture was taken, the spacecraft released its two MINERVA-II1 rovers which have since successfully landed and demonstrated an ability to hop around this rock-strewn body.

“I cannot find words to express how happy I am that we were able to realize mobile exploration on the surface of an asteroid” enthused Yuichi Tsuda, Hayabusa2 Project Project Manager, “I am proud that Hayabusa2 was able to contribute to the creation of this technology for a new method of space exploration by surface movement on small bodies.”

The next stage will see the Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout (MASCOT) lander released onto the asteroid’s surface. Developed by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in cooperation with the French Space Agency (CNES) MASCOT has enough power for a 12-hour mission, in which it will analyse the asteroid’s surface at two different sites.

The Hayabusa2 spacecraft itself will collect three samples from Ryugu, bringing them back to Earth in December 2020. These strange specimens will provide insights into the composition of this carbonaceous asteroid — a type of space rock expected to preserve some of the most pristine materials in the Solar System.

As well as hopefully shining light on the origin and evolution of the inner planets, and the sources of water and organic compounds on Earth, this knowledge should help in efforts to protect our planet from marauding masses that come too close for comfort to our home planet.

Understanding the composition and characteristics of near-Earth objects is vital to defending ourselves from them, if one were to head in our direction. ESA’s proposed Hera mission to test asteroid deflection is an ambitious example of how we can get to know these ancient bodies better, all in the name of planetary defence.

Cube Sat Data

The future of CubeSats is very bright as we all know. We are beginning to see public data releases.

Original caption: The first data from RainCube, a tiny weather satellite. RainCube is a prototype for a possible fleet of future small satellite missions that can track precipitation from space. RainCube “sees” objects by using radar, much as a bat uses sonar. The satellite’s umbrella — like antenna sends out chirps, or specialized radar signals, that bounce off raindrops, bringing back a picture of what the inside of the storm looks like.

This graph shows a storm over the mountains in Mexico in late August 2018, as measured by RainCube’s radar. The data shows a vertical snapshot of the storm — the bright white line shows the ground, while the bright colors around it show the intensity of the rainfall, as well as the more reflective areas of the terrain. Brighter colors, like yellow or red, show areas of higher reflectivity, e.g. heavier rain.

For more information about CubeSat see

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech