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.


Valley Fog from Space

I remember valley fog fondly. When I was a youngster I’d ride the bus and looking down into the valley it would actually look like the valleys were filled in with a solid white mass and we would have to descend into it to get to the school. It’s one of those things you have to experience to appreciate I suppose.

This image was taken by the the Suomi NPP satellite (credit: NASA/Joshua Stevens/Adam Voiland). One of the most striking thing about the image is the “light pollution”.


It’s autumn in the Northern Hemisphere, which means many people living in mountainous areas are awakening to fog-filled valleys.

As nights lengthen with the season, the atmosphere has more time to cool down and approach the dew point—the temperature at which the air becomes saturated and water vapor condenses into fog. Since cold air is denser than warm air, it sinks and drain into valleys, meaning fog develops there first. Many valleys also have rivers and streams, which amplifies the process by providing a ready supply of water vapor.

The Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the Suomi NPP satellite captured a glimpse of this process at work in the mountains of West Virginia on October 24, 2018. The sensor acquired the nighttime image at about 2 a.m., when fog had filled many valleys of the Cumberland Mountains.

Mars Seen by Wall-E

MarCO-B (Wall-E) one of the two CubeSats traveling along with the Insight Mars lander has taken its first picture of Mars.

Click the image above for a larger view and click here for an annotated view. Images: NASA/JPL-CalTech.

Here’s NASA’s press release:
NASA’s MarCO mission was designed to find out if briefcase-sized spacecraft called CubeSats could survive the journey to deep space. Now, MarCO – which stands for Mars Cube One – has Mars in sight.

One of the twin MarCO CubeSats snapped this image of Mars on Oct. 3 – the first image of the Red Planet ever produced by this class of tiny, low-cost spacecraft. The two CubeSats are officially called MarCO-A and MarCO-B but nicknamed “EVE” and “Wall-E” by their engineering team.

A wide-angle camera on top of MarCO-B produced the image as a test of exposure settings. The MarCO mission, led by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, hopes to produce more images as the CubeSats approach Mars ahead of Nov. 26. That’s when they’ll demonstrate their communications capabilities while NASA’s InSight spacecraft attempts to land on the Red Planet. (The InSight mission won’t rely on them, however; NASA’s Mars orbiters will be relaying the spacecraft’s data back to Earth.)

This image was taken from a distance of roughly 8 million miles (12.8 million kilometers) from Mars. The MarCOs are “chasing” Mars, which is a moving target as it orbits the Sun. In order to be in place for InSight’s landing, the CubeSats have to travel roughly 53 million miles (85 million kilometers). They have already traveled 248 million miles (399 million kilometers).

MarCO-B’s wide-angle camera looks straight out from the deck of the CubeSat. Parts related to the spacecraft’s high-gain antenna are visible on either side of the image. Mars appears as a small red dot at the right of the image.
To take the image, the MarCO team had to program the CubeSat to rotate in space so that the deck of its boxy “body” was pointing at Mars. After several test images, they were excited to see that clear, red pinprick.

“We’ve been waiting six months to get to Mars,” said Cody Colley, MarCO’s mission manager at JPL. “The cruise phase of the mission is always difficult, so you take all the small wins when they come. Finally seeing the planet is definitely a big win for the team.”

For more information about MarCO, visit:

BepiColumbo’s Selfie

All appears to be fine with BepiColumbo as it enters the interplanetary phase of the journey to Mercury.  This includes data from the “selfies” taken by the spacecraft .

Click the image for a larger version. Credit: ESA/BepiColombo/MTM – CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO


ESA:  This trio of images was captured by the BepiColombo spacecraft after it blasted off into space at 01:45 GMT on 20 October on its seven year cruise to Mercury, the innermost planet of the Solar System.

In the hours immediately after launch, critical operations took place, including deployments of the solar wings and antennas. The Mercury Transfer Module (MTM) has two 15 m-long solar arrays that will be used to generate power, while the antennas onboard ESA’s Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) are needed to communicate with Earth, and eventually to transmit science data. The deployments were all confirmed by telemetry sent by the spacecraft to ESA’s mission control centre in Darmstadt, Germany.

The transfer module is also equipped with three monitoring cameras – or ‘M-CAMs’ – which provide black-and-white snapshots in 1024 x 1024 pixel resolution. The M-CAM 1 camera imaged one of the deployed solar wings of the transfer module (left), while M-CAM 2 and M-CAM 3 captured the medium- and high-gain antennas on the MPO (centre, and right, respectively), along with other structural elements of the spacecraft.

Click here for an infographic showing the locations of the cameras onboard the MTM together with the new images.

The monitoring cameras will be used on various occasions during the cruise phase, notably during the flybys of Earth, Venus and Mercury. While the MPO is equipped with a high-resolution scientific camera, this can only be operated after separating from the MTM upon arrival at Mercury in late 2025 because, like several of the 11 instrument suites, it is located on the side of the spacecraft fixed to the MTM during cruise.

JAXA’s Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter sits inside a protective sunshield on ‘top’ of the MPO, and cannot be seen in these images.

BepiColombo is a joint endeavour between ESA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, JAXA. It is the first European mission to Mercury, the smallest and least explored planet in the inner Solar System, and the first to send two spacecraft to make complementary measurements of the planet and its dynamic environment at the same time.


Chandra’s Look at Kes 75

NASA: Scientists have confirmed the identity of the youngest known pulsar in the Milky Way galaxy using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. This result could provide astronomers new information about how some stars end their lives.

After some massive stars run out of nuclear fuel, then collapse and explode as supernovas, they leave behind dense stellar nuggets called “neutron stars”. Rapidly rotating and highly magnetized neutron stars produce a lighthouse-like beam of radiation that astronomers detect as pulses as the pulsar’s rotation sweeps the beam across the sky.

Since Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Anthony Hewish, and their colleagues first discovered pulsars through their radio emission in the 1960s, over 2,000 of these exotic objects have been identified. However, many mysteries about pulsars remain, including their diverse range of behaviors and the nature of stars that form them.

New data from Chandra are helping address some of those questions. A team of astronomers has confirmed that the supernova remnant Kes 75, located about 19,000 light years from Earth, contains the youngest known pulsar in the Milky Way galaxy.

The rapid rotation and strong magnetic field of the pulsar have generated a wind of energetic matter and antimatter particles that flow away from the pulsar at near the speed of light . This pulsar wind has created a large, magnetized bubble of high-energy particles called a pulsar wind nebula, seen as the blue region surrounding the pulsar.

In this composite image of Kes 75, high-energy X-rays observed by Chandra are colored blue and highlight the pulsar wind nebula surrounding the pulsar, while lower-energy X-rays appear purple and show the debris from the explosion. A Sloan Digital Sky Survey optical image reveals stars in the field.

The Chandra data taken in 2000, 2006, 2009, and 2016 show changes in the pulsar wind nebula with time. Between 2000 and 2016, the Chandra observations reveal that the outer edge of the pulsar wind nebula is expanding at a remarkable 1 million meters per second, or over 2 million miles per hour.

This high speed may be due to the pulsar wind nebula expanding into a relatively low-density environment. Specifically, astronomers suggest it is expanding into a gaseous bubble blown by radioactive nickel formed in the explosion and ejected as the star exploded. This nickel also powered the supernova light, as it decayed into diffuse iron gas that filled the bubble. If so, this gives astronomers insight into the very heart of the exploding star and the elements it created.

The expansion rate also tells astronomers that Kes 75 exploded about five centuries ago as seen from Earth. (The object is some 19,000 light years away, but astronomers refer to when its light would have arrived at Earth.) Unlike other supernova remnants from this era such as Tycho and Kepler, there is no known evidence from historical records that the explosion that created Kes 75 was observed.

Why wasn’t Kes 75 seen from Earth? The Chandra observations along with previous ones from other telescopes indicate that the interstellar dust and gas that fill our Galaxy are very dense in the direction of the doomed star. This would have rendered it too dim to be seen from Earth several centuries ago.

The brightness of the pulsar wind nebula has decreased by 10% from 2000 to 2016, mainly concentrated in the northern area, with a 30% decrease in a bright knot. The rapid changes observed in the Kes 75 pulsar wind nebula, as well as its unusual structure, point to the need for more sophisticated models of the evolution of pulsar wind nebulas.

A paper describing these results appeared in The Astrophysical Journal and is available online. The authors are Stephen Reynolds, Kazimierz Borokowski, and Peter Gwynne from North Carolina State University. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages the Chandra program for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, controls Chandra’s science and flight operations.

Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/NCSU/S. Reynolds; Optical: PanSTARRS

Curious Tales of Switching Brains

The rover Curiosity is having issues with saving data to the main computer so they are going to “switch brains” that is, they are going to activate the redundant computer. While this switch has been done before on the rover it is still a very challenging process, especially considering the rover is nearly 107.5 million km / 66.8 million miles away and the complexity of the issues they are troubleshooting. It just shows what a capable and adaptable group the rover team is. Anyway. . .

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

NASA: 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.”