All posts by Tom

The Rover Rosalind Franklin

The few days ago the ExoMars rover got an official name and I was very pleased to find out it is Rosalind Franklin. Great choice!

ESA: The name of the European rover that will explore Mars in 2021 was revealed today at Airbus, Stevenage, UK by Chris Skidmore, UK Science Minister.

The rover is named Rosalind Franklin after prominent scientist behind the discovery of the structure of DNA. The ExoMars rover will be the first of its kind to combine the capability to roam around Mars and to study it at depth, searching for evidence of life buried underground. 

Image: ESA – S. Corvaja

Rocket Cam

Take a ride as the NROL-71 takes flight on a Delta VI. Except this time you are on the rocket.

Great video from United Launch Alliance.

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:

MarCo Evaluation

The mission team and builders of the MarCO cubesates nicknamed EVE and WALL-E must be very pleased on the performance of the pair now that it is pretty much said and done. Oh there is a very slight chance of communications recovery I suppose, but it’s very doubtful. Nevertheless, a great demonstration of what these small sats are capable of and we will be seeing more from the technology in the future – no doubt about it.

NASA — Before the pair of briefcase-sized spacecraft known collectively as MarCO launched last year, their success was measured by survival: If they were able to operate in deep space at all, they would be pushing the limits of experimental technology.

Now well past Mars, the daring twins seem to have reached their limit. It’s been over a month since engineers have heard from MarCO, which followed NASA’s InSight to the Red Planet. At this time, the mission team considers it unlikely they’ll be heard from again.

MarCO, short for Mars Cube One, was the first interplanetary mission to use a class of mini-spacecraft called CubeSats. The MarCOs — nicknamed EVE and WALL-E, after characters from a Pixar film — served as communications relays during InSight’s landing, beaming back data at each stage of its descent to the Martian surface in near-real time, along with InSight’s first image. WALL-E sent back stunning images of Mars as well, while EVE performed some simple radio science.

All of this was achieved with experimental technology that cost a fraction of what most space missions do: $18.5 million provided by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, which built the CubeSats.

WALL-E was last heard from on Dec. 29; EVE, on Jan. 4. Based on trajectory calculations, WALL-E is currently more than 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers) past Mars; EVE is farther, almost 2 million miles (3.2 million kilometers) past Mars.

The mission team has several theories for why they haven’t been able to contact the pair. WALL-E has a leaky thruster. Attitude-control issues could be causing them to wobble and lose the ability to send and receive commands. The brightness sensors that allow the CubeSats to stay pointed at the Sun and recharge their batteries could be another factor. The MarCOs are in orbit around the Sun and will only get farther away as February wears on. The farther they are, the more precisely they need to point their antennas to communicate with Earth.

The MarCOs won’t start moving toward the Sun again until this summer. The team will reattempt to contact the CubeSats at that time, though it’s anyone’s guess whether their batteries and other parts will last that long.

Even if they’re never revived, the team considers MarCO a spectacular success.

“This mission was always about pushing the limits of miniaturized technology and seeing just how far it could take us,” said Andy Klesh, the mission’s chief engineer at JPL. “We’ve put a stake in the ground. Future CubeSats might go even farther.”

A number of the critical spare parts for each MarCO will be used in other CubeSat missions. That includes their experimental radios, antennas and propulsion systems. Several of these systems were provided by commercial vendors, making it easier for other CubeSats to use them as well.

More small spacecraft are on the way. NASA is set to launch a variety of new CubeSats in coming years.

“There’s big potential in these small packages,” said John Baker, the MarCO program manager at JPL. “CubeSats — part of a larger group of spacecraft called SmallSats — are a new platform for space exploration that is affordable to more than just government agencies.”

Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech

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

Arianespace VA247 Launch – Replay

Here is a replay. It is only a couple of minutes long and if you were here for the live version you know why – very moist fog/cloud conditions.

Launching from the Guiana Space Center, communication satellites the
Saudi Geostationary Satellite 1/Hellas Sat 4, GSAT-31 atop an Ariane 5 – ECA.

Yeah I know I just noticed the typo.

Replays when available

Hubble’s View of D100

ESA – This striking image combines data gathered with the Advanced Camera for Surveys, installed on the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and data from the Subaru Telescope in Hawaii. It shows just a part of the spectacular tail emerging from a spiral galaxy nicknamed D100.

Tails such as these are created by a process known as ram-pressure stripping. Despite appearances, the space between galaxies in a cluster is far from empty; it is actually filled with superheated gas and plasma, which drags and pulls at galaxies as they move through it, a little like the resistance one experiences when wading through deep water. This can be strong enough to tear galaxies apart, and often results in objects with peculiar, bizarre shapes and features — as seen here.

D100’s eye-catching tail of gas, which stretches far beyond this image to the left, is a particularly striking example of this phenomenon. The galaxy is a member of the huge Coma cluster. The pressure from the cluster’s hot constituent plasma (known as the intracluster medium) has stripped gas from D100 and torn it away from the galaxy’s main body, and drawing it out into the plume pictured here.

Densely populated clusters such as Coma are home to thousands of galaxies. They are thus the perfect laboratories in which to study the intriguing phenomenon of ram-pressure stripping, which, as well as producing beautiful images such as this, can have a profound effect on how galaxies evolve and form new generations of stars.

Jupiter Storm from Juno

Very nice work once again from Gerald Eichstädt and Seán Doran using Juno data. I am on hold from doing any work with Juno data, my computer goes into spasms with even modest graphics, maps will send it into meltdown mode. A cure is planned.

NASA – A giant, spiraling storm in Jupiter’s southern hemisphere is captured in this animation from NASA’s Juno spacecraft. The storm is approximately 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometers) across.

The counterclockwise motion of the storm, called Oval BA, is clearly on display. A similar rotation can be seen in the famous Great Red Spot at the top of the animation.

Juno took the nine images used to produce this movie sequence on Dec. 21, between 9:24 a.m. PST (12:24 p.m. EST) and 10:07 a.m. PST (1:07 p.m. EST). At the time the images were taken, the spacecraft was between approximately 15,400 miles (24,800 kilometers) and 60,700 miles (97,700 kilometers) from the planet’s cloud tops above southern latitudes spanning about 36 to 74 degrees.

Citizen scientists Gerald Eichstädt and Seán Doran created this animation using data from the spacecraft’s JunoCam imager.

JunoCam’s raw images are available for the public to peruse and to process into image products at: http://missionjuno.swri.edu/junocam.   

More information about Juno is at: http://www.nasa.gov/juno and http://missionjuno.swri.edu.

Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt/Seán Doran