Category Archives: Uncategorized

ExoMars Parachute in the Oven

This is one of those strange coincidences. Just a few days ago, Tuesday, I was having a conversation with a friend of mine about the precautions of bacteria from Earth going to other places other than home. “Well they do nothing because bacteria would die in outer-space.” NOT SO I countered. Bacteria can indeed live in “outer-space”, citing bacteria found on the outside of the International Space Station.

Today I saw this from ESA dealing with such issue on the ExoMars parachute and I knew I should have wagered on it (LOL).

ESA: A technician places a nearly 70 kg parachute designed for ESA and Roscosmos’s ExoMars 2020 mission inside the dry heater steriliser of the Agency’s Life, Physical Sciences and Life Support Laboratory, based in its Netherlands technical centre.

Mars is a potential abode of past and perhaps even present-day life. Accordingly, international planetary protection regulations require any mission sent to the Red Planet to undergo rigorous sterilisation, to prevent terrestrial microbes from piggybacking their way there.

The Lab’s Alan Dowson explains: “This is the ‘qualification model’ of the 35-m diameter main parachute for ExoMars 2020, basically a test version which allows us to finalise our sterilisation procedures ahead of the flight model chute’s arrival.

“This version has been threaded with thermal sensors, allowing us to see how long it takes to reach the required sterilisation temperature in all parts of the folded parachute, even in the hardest to heat points. Our target was to sterilise at 125 °C for 35 hours and 26 minutes, and the oven took about 44 hours to reach that temperature to begin with.”

The oven is part of the Lab’s 35 sq. m ‘ISO Class 1’ cleanroom, one of the cleanest places in Europe. All the cleanroom’s air passes through a two-stage filter system. Anyone entering the chamber has to gown up in a much more rigorous way than a hospital surgeon, before passing through an air shower to remove any remaining contaminants.

“If you imagine our clean room as being as big as the entire Earth’s atmosphere, then its allowable contamination would be equal to a single hot air balloon,” adds Alan. “Our ISO 1 rating means we have less than 10 dust particles measuring a tenth of one millionth of a metre in diameter per cubic metre of air.”

The mostly nylon and Kevlar parachute, packed into an 80-cm diameter donut-shaped unit, was delivered by Italy’s Arescosmo company. This qualification model will now be sent back there for testing, to ensure this sterilisation process causes no change to the parachute’s material properties.

Alan explains: “We will receive the parachute flight model later this spring for the same sterilisation process – identical to this version, except without any thermal sensors.”

ExoMars’s smaller first stage 15-m diameter parachute has already gone through sterilisation using the oven. This is the parachute that opens during initial, supersonic atmospheric entry, with the second, larger chute opening once the mission has been slowed to subsonic velocity.

The Lab has also tackled a variety of ExoMars instruments and subsystems, but this second stage subsonic parachute is the single largest item to be sterilised. The sterilisation process aims to reduce the overall mission ‘bioburden’ to a 10 thousandth of its original level.

Image: ESA–M. Cowan

InSight’s Mole Stopped

The InSight lander has started to deploy the probe it is to hammer into the planet but has run into a problem. It sounds like the probe only managed to get about 30 cm / 11 in before it stopped.

Hopefully the mission team can get it a bit deeper, best not take any chances yet and of course they are not.

NASA — NASA’s Mars InSight lander has a probe designed to dig up to 16 feet (5 meters) below the surface and measure heat coming from inside the planet. After beginning to hammer itself into the soil on Thursday, Feb. 28, the 16-inch-long (40-centimeter-long) probe — part of an instrument called the Heat and Physical Properties Package, or HP3 — got about three-fourths of the way out of its housing structure before stopping. No significant progress was seen after a second bout of hammering on Saturday, March 2. Data suggests the probe, known as a “mole,” is at a 15-degree tilt.

Scientists suspect it hit a rock or some gravel. The team had hoped there would be relatively few rocks below ground, given how few appear on the surface beside the lander. Even so, the mole was designed to push small rocks aside or wend its way around them. The instrument, which was provided for InSight by the German Aerospace Center (DLR), did so repeatedly during testing before InSight launched.

“The team has decided to pause the hammering for now to allow the situation to be analyzed more closely and jointly come up with strategies for overcoming the obstacle,” HPPrincipal Investigator Tilman Spohn of DLR wrote in a blog post. He added that the team wants to hold off from further hammering for about two weeks.

Data show that the probe itself continues to function as expected: After heating by 50 degrees Fahrenheit (28 degrees Celsius), it measures how quickly that heat dissipates in the soil. This property, known as thermal conductivity, helps calibrate sensors embedded in a tether trailing from the back of the mole. Once the mole is deep enough, these tether sensors can measure Mars’ natural heat coming from inside the planet, which is generated by radioactive materials decaying and energy left over from Mars’ formation.

The team will be conducting further heating tests this week to measure the thermal conductivity of the upper surface. They will also use a radiometer on InSight’s deck to measure temperature changes on the surface. Mars’ moon Phobos will pass in front of the Sun several times this week; like a cloud passing overhead, the eclipse will darken and cool the ground around InSight.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/DLR

Space X Launch

SpaceX will be launching (hopefully) from Cape Canaveral at 20:45 ET / 01:45 UT (22 Feb).

Stop by and watch here, if you can’t watch there will be replays after the launch.

If there is not a launch due to some issue, the next opportunity is a few minutes less than 24 hours later.

The Current Solar Cycle

I’ve seen a few mentions about how we are in a new solar cycle. Well not quite so fast, the demarcation line is not distinct and it is just a wee bit too early to tell. There are some good signs to be sure, but at the same time the solar disc as been spotless for 8-days straight and 22 out of the 40 days so far this year.

So we are at solar minimum to be sure and this is probably not a “grand solar minimum” especially given the positive signs we are seeing since the “grand solar minimum” is a prolonged period, much longer than what we’ve seen so far. Basically at this point I consider such claims to be click-bait.

Here’s a little more about the solar-cycle from Michel van Biezen:

InSight Update

Happy days people, we have an update from the InSight Mars Lander mission. Sounds like the seismometer might start getting good data soon.

NASA – For the past several weeks, NASA’s InSight lander has been making adjustments to the seismometer it set on the Martian surface on Dec. 19. Now it’s reached another milestone by placing a domed shield over the seismometer to help the instrument collect accurate data. The seismometer will give scientists their first look at the deep interior of the Red Planet, helping them understand how it and other rocky planets are formed.

The Wind and Thermal Shield helps protect the supersensitive instrument from being shaken by passing winds, which can add “noise” to its data. The dome’s aerodynamic shape causes the wind to press it toward the planet’s surface, ensuring it won’t flip over. A skirt made of chain mail and thermal blankets rings the bottom, allowing it to settle easily over any rocks, though there are few at InSight’s location.

An even bigger concern for InSight’s seismometer — called the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) — is temperature change, which can expand and contract metal springs and other parts inside the seismometer. Where InSight landed, temperatures fluctuate by about 170 degrees Fahrenheit (94 degrees Celsius) over the course of a Martian day, or sol.

“Temperature is one of our biggest bugaboos,” said InSight Principal Investigator Bruce Banerdt of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. JPL leads the InSight mission and built the Wind and Thermal Shield. “Think of the shield as putting a cozy over your food on a table. It keeps SEIS from warming up too much during the day or cooling off too much at night. In general, we want to keep the temperature as steady as possible.”

On Earth, seismometers are often buried about four feet (1.2 meters) underground in vaults, which helps keep the temperature stable. InSight can’t build a vault on Mars, so the mission relies on several measures to protect its seismometer. The shield is the first line of defense.

A second line of defense is SEIS itself, which is specially engineered to correct for wild temperature swings on the Martian surface. The seismometer was built so that as some parts expand and contract, others do so in the opposite direction to partially cancel those effects. Additionally, the instrument is vacuum-sealed in a titanium sphere that insulates its sensitive insides and reduces the influence of temperature.

But even that isn’t quite enough. The sphere is enclosed within yet another insulating container — a copper-colored hexagonal box visible during SEIS’s deployment. The walls of this box are honeycombed with cells that trap air and keep it from moving. Mars provides an excellent gas for this insulation: Its thin atmosphere is primarily composed of carbon dioxide, which at low pressure is especially slow to conduct heat.

With these three insulating barriers, SEIS is well-protected from thermal “noise” seeping into the data and masking the seismic waves that InSight’s team wants to study. Finally, most additional interference from the Martian environment can be detected by InSight’s weather sensors, then filtered out by mission scientists.

With the seismometer on the ground and covered, InSight’s team is readying for its next step: deploying the heat flow probe, called the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3), onto the Martian surface. That’s expected to happen next week.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

InSight Deploys SEIS

NASA graciously allowed the embedding of this image, however the version clipped the bottom of the image rather drastically (only the arm was visible) so I altered the embed code a little – hopefully it works out.

Now we have a seismometer from the InSight Mission on Mars. By the way, especially for teachers and students, the InSight Mission website is rich in educational activities and resources for the classroom — including Real Time Seismic Data in the Classroom.

NASA — NASA’s InSight lander placed its seismometer onto Mars on Dec. 19, 2018. This was the first time a spacecraft robotically placed a seismometer onto the surface of another planet. The seismometer is the copper-colored object in this image, which was taken around Martian dusk.

The seismometer, called Seismic Explorations for Interior Structure (SEIS), will measure seismic waves caused by marsquakes, meteorite strikes and other phenomena. Watching how these waves travel through Mars’ interior will let scientists study how the planet’s crust, mantle and core are layered. It will also reveal more about how all rocky bodies are formed, including Earth and its Moon.

JPL manages InSight for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. InSight is part of NASA’s Discovery Program, managed by the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Lockheed Martin Space in Denver built the InSight spacecraft, including its cruise stage and lander, and supports spacecraft operations for the mission.

A number of European partners, including France’s Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), are supporting the InSight mission. CNES and the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris (IPGP) provided the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) instrument, with significant contributions from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Germany, the Swiss Institute of Technology (ETH) in Switzerland, Imperial College and Oxford University in the United Kingdom, and JPL. DLR provided the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) instrument, with significant contributions from the Space Research Center (CBK) of the Polish Academy of Sciences and Astronika in Poland. Spain’s Centro de Astrobiología (CAB) supplied the wind sensors.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

SpaceX to Launch GPS III – Scrubbed Again

The second attempt to get the GPS III into orbit.

The weather doesn’t look too good but we’ll see.

Pretty much the same launch window as before, coverage beginning at 14:03 UT/ 09:03 ET

Good luck!

Update: As I suspected, the launch is now scheduled for 22 December with coverage starting at 13:55 UTC

Oh by the way a Delta IV Heavy is scheduled to launch the NROL-71 Satellite into orbit at (21 Dec) at 01:00 UTC.

First Light from Parker’s WISPR

Wow, very nice quality and more importantly working as expected from the Wide-field Imager for Solar Probe. Click the image for a larger version. You can also get the HD versions (and I HIGHLY recommend you do) from NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio.


NASA’s description of this image:
Russ Howard, WISPR principal investigator from the Naval Research Laboratory, studied the images to determine the instrument was pointing as expected, using celestial landmarks as a guide.

“There is a very distinctive cluster of stars on the overlap of the two images. The brightest is the star Antares-alpha, which is in the constellation Scorpius and is about 90 degrees from the Sun,” said Howard.

The Sun, not visible in the image, is far off to the right of the image’s right edge. The planet Jupiter is visible in the image captured by WISPR’s inner telescope — it’s the bright object slightly right of center in the right-hand panel of the image.

“The left side of the photo shows a beautiful image of the Milky Way, looking at the galactic center,” said Howard.

The exposure time – i.e. the length of time that light was gathered for this image, an interval which can be shortened or lengthened to make the image darker or brighter – is on the lower end, and there’s a reason: “We intentionally wanted to be on the low side in case there was something very bright when we first turned on, but it is primarily because we are looking so far from the Sun,” explains Howard.

As the spacecraft approaches the Sun, its orientation will change, and so will WISPR’s images. With each solar orbit, WISPR will capture images of the structures flowing out from the corona. While measurements have been made before by other instruments at a distance of 1 AU – or approximately 93 million miles – WISPR will get much closer, about 95% of the way to the Sun from Earth, dramatically increasing the ability to see what’s occurring in that region with a much finer scale than ever before and providing a more pristine picture of the solar corona.

Read the entire piece by Sarah Frazier, she covers the other instruments too and it’s a very good read.