All posts by Tom

Gateway to Space

“Virgin Galactic is moving its human spaceflight launches to Spaceport America in New Mexico. — Story: Virgin Galactic Opens ‘Gateway to Space’ for Tourist Launches at Spaceport America:” — VideosfromSpace

I need to watch some 1950 – 1960’s sci-fi this weekend it’s getting real.

The Four Candidates on Bennu

Here are the final four candidates on asteroid Bennu for the sample return mission. The spacial distribution of the sites can be seen in this very short video. Which would you choose?

Credits: NASA/University of Arizona


After months grappling with the rugged reality of asteroid Bennu’s surface, the team leading NASA’s first asteroid sample return mission has selected four potential sites for the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft to “tag” its cosmic dance partner.

Since its arrival in December 2018, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has mapped the entire asteroid in order to identify the safest and most accessible spots for the spacecraft to collect a sample. These four sites now will be studied in further detail in order to select the final two sites – a primary and backup – in December.

The team originally had planned to choose the final two sites by this point in the mission. Initial analysis of Earth-based observations suggested the asteroid’s surface likely contains large “ponds” of fine-grain material. The spacecraft’s earliest images, however, revealed Bennu has an especially rocky terrain. Since then, the asteroid’s boulder-filled topography has created a challenge for the team to identify safe areas containing sampleable material, which must be fine enough – less than 1 inch (2.5 cm) diameter – for the spacecraft’s sampling mechanism to ingest it.

“We knew that Bennu would surprise us, so we came prepared for whatever we might find,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “As with any mission of exploration, dealing with the unknown requires flexibility, resources and ingenuity. The OSIRIS-REx team has demonstrated these essential traits for overcoming the unexpected throughout the Bennu encounter.”

The original mission schedule intentionally included more than 300 days of extra time during asteroid operations to address such unexpected challenges. In a demonstration of its flexibility and ingenuity in response to Bennu’s surprises, the mission team is adapting its site selection process. Instead of down-selecting to the final two sites this summer, the mission will spend an additional four months studying the four candidate sites in detail, with a particular focus on identifying regions of fine-grain, sampleable material from upcoming, high-resolution observations of each site. The boulder maps that citizen science counters helped create through observations earlier this year were used as one of many pieces of data considered when assessing each site’s safety. The data collected will be key to selecting the final two sites best suited for sample collection.

In order to further adapt to Bennu’s ruggedness, the OSIRIS-REx team has made other adjustments to its sample site identification process. The original mission plan envisioned a sample site with a radius of 82 feet (25 m). Boulder-free sites of that size don’t exist on Bennu, so the team has instead identified sites ranging from 16 to 33 feet (5 to 10 m) in radius. In order for the spacecraft to accurately target a smaller site, the team reassessed the spacecraft’s operational capabilities to maximize its performance. The mission also has tightened its navigation requirements to guide the spacecraft to the asteroid’s surface, and developed a new sampling technique called “Bullseye TAG,” which uses images of the asteroid surface to navigate the spacecraft all the way to the actual surface with high accuracy. The mission’s performance so far has demonstrated the new standards are within its capabilities.

“Although OSIRIS-REx was designed to collect a sample from an asteroid with a beach-like area, the extraordinary in-flight performance to date demonstrates that we will be able to meet the challenge that the rugged surface of Bennu presents,” said Rich Burns, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “That extraordinary performance encompasses not only the spacecraft and instruments, but also the team who continues to meet every challenge that Bennu throws at us.”

The four candidate sample sites on Bennu are designated Nightingale, Kingfisher, Osprey, and Sandpiper – all birds native to Egypt. The naming theme complements the mission’s two other naming conventions – Egyptian deities (the asteroid and spacecraft) and mythological birds (surface features on Bennu).

The four sites are diverse in both geographic location and geological features. While the amount of sampleable material in each site has yet to be determined, all four sites have been evaluated thoroughly to ensure the spacecraft’s safety as it descends to, touches and collects a sample from the asteroid’s surface.

Nightingale is the northern-most site, situated at 56 degrees north latitude on Bennu. There are multiple possible sampling regions in this site, which is set in a small crater encompassed by a larger crater 459 feet (140 m) in diameter. The site contains mostly fine-grain, dark material and has the lowest albedo, or reflection, and surface temperature of the four sites.

Kingfisher is located in a small crater near Bennu’s equator at 11 degrees north latitude. The crater has a diameter of 26 feet (8 m) and is surrounded by boulders, although the site itself is free of large rocks. Among the four sites, Kingfisher has the strongest spectral signature for hydrated minerals.

Osprey is set in a small crater, 66 feet (20 m) in diameter, which is also located in Bennu’s equatorial region at 11 degrees north latitude. There are several possible sampling regions within the site. The diversity of rock types in the surrounding area suggests that the regolith within Osprey may also be diverse. Osprey has the strongest spectral signature of carbon-rich material among the four sites.

Sandpiper is located in Bennu’s southern hemisphere, at 47 degrees south latitude. The site is in a relatively flat area on the wall of a large crater 207 ft (63 m) in diameter. Hydrated minerals are also present, which indicates that Sandpiper may contain unmodified water-rich material.

This fall, OSIRIS-REx will begin detailed analyses of the four candidate sites during the mission’s reconnaissance phase. During the first stage of this phase, the spacecraft will execute high passes over each of the four sites from a distance of 0.8 miles (1.29 km) to confirm they are safe and contain sampleable material. Closeup imaging also will map the features and landmarks required for the spacecraft’s autonomous navigation to the asteroid’s surface. The team will use the data from these passes to select the final primary and backup sample collection sites in December.

The second and third stages of reconnaissance will begin in early 2020 when the spacecraft will perform passes over the final two sites at lower altitudes and take even higher resolution observations of the surface to identify features, such as groupings of rocks that will be used to navigate to the surface for sample collection. OSIRIS-REx sample collection is scheduled for the latter half of 2020, and the spacecraft will return the asteroid samples to Earth on Sept. 24, 2023.

Goddard provides overall mission management, systems engineering, and safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, Tucson, is the principal investigator, and the University of Arizona leads the science team and the mission’s science observation planning and data processing. Lockheed Martin Space in Denver built the spacecraft and is providing flight operations. Goddard and KinetX Aerospace are responsible for navigating the spacecraft. OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program, which is managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

For more information about OSIRIS-REx, visit:

Leaving the Solar Doldrums?

The above chart, shows we are at the bottom of the solar cycle (Solar Cycle 24). It looks like the predictions for the progression to Solar Cycle 25 could be pretty good. We have already seen new sunspots with the correct magnetic polarity for the new cycle.

The northern pole of the Sun has been pretty busy too:

This polar jet from 22 July 2019 is about 33 percent of the solar radius.

I am looking forward to this cycle even more than usual. I want to see what happens when a big solar storm gets going. In 2003 my employment required I wear a pager. We used a satellite-based emergency pager and it was great, that is until the Halloween Storms; marking the end of that pager and I believe and pager company.

What about today? So much more of technology susceptible to space weather is commonplace, from getting driving directions in our cars to seeing if our front door is secure. The field of space weather and the cadre of researchers and satellite operators are in for interesting times ahead.

Images courtesy: XRT mission / Royal Observatory of Belgium / Harvard Univ.

It’s Called Churymoon

It’s a fun moniker, “Churymoon” – a REAL chip off the old comet. Couldn’t resist. Very pleased to see Rosetta in the news again!


ESA: Last week marked five years since ESA’s Rosetta probe arrived at its target, a comet named 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (or 67P/C-G). Tomorrow, 13 August, it will be four years since the comet, escorted by Rosetta, reached its perihelion – the closest point to the Sun along its orbit. This image, gathered by Rosetta a couple of months after perihelion, when the comet activity was still very intense, depicts the nucleus of the comet with an unusual companion: a chunk of orbiting debris (circled).

Comet 67P/C-G is a dusty object. As it neared its closest approach to the Sun in late July and August 2015, instruments on Rosetta recorded a huge amount of dust enshrouding the comet. This is tied to the comet’s proximity to our parent star, its heat causing the comet’s nucleus to release gases into space, lifting the dust along. Spectacular jets were also observed, blasting more dust away from the comet. This disturbed, ejected material forms the ‘coma’, the gaseous envelope encasing the comet’s nucleus, and can create a beautiful and distinctive tail.

A single image from Rosetta’s OSIRIS instrument can contain hundreds of dust particles and grains surrounding the 4 km-wide comet nucleus. Sometimes, even larger chunks of material left the surface of 67P/C-G – as shown here.

The sizeable chunk in this view was spotted a few months ago by astrophotographer Jacint Roger from Spain, who mined the Rosetta archive, processed some of the data, and posted the finished images on Twitter as an animated GIF. He spotted the orbiting object in a sequence of images taken by Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on 21 October 2015. At that time, the spacecraft was at over 400 km away from 67P/C-G’s centre. The animated sequence is available for download here.

Scientists at ESA and in the OSIRIS instrument team are now looking into this large piece of cometary debris in greater detail. Dubbed a ‘Churymoon’ by researcher Julia Marín-Yaseli de la Parra, the chunk appears to span just under 4 m in diameter.

Modelling of the Rosetta images indicates that this object spent the first 12 hours after its ejection in an orbital path around 67P/C-G at a distance of between 2.4 and 3.9 km from the comet’s centre. Afterwards, the chunk crossed a portion of the coma, which appears very bright in the images, making it difficult to follow its path precisely; however, later observations on the opposite side of the coma confirm a detection consistent with the orbit of the chunk, providing an indication of its motion around the comet until 23 October 2015.

Scientists have been studying and tracking debris around 67P/C-G since Rosetta’s arrival in 2014. The object pictured in this view is likely the largest chunk detected around the comet, and will be subject to further investigations.

Comet 67P/C-G is currently in the outer Solar System, between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, and will have its next perihelion in late 2021.

The Perseids

The Perseids are here, one of the best showers of the year. The above photo is courtesy of NASA.

I decided to get my own pictures of the shower. So I get my camera ready, tripod ready and I’m all set. My plan was (and still is) to go out early in the morning; my skies are generally very nice in the morning. Not a small consideration is I live at an intersection and while I don’t have a high traffic volume, in the evening it is enough probably to interfere with long exposures. The mornings are a different story, plenty of time.

Yesterday morning was a wash-out with the last of some rain that lasted until just after daylight. So this morning I get going and look out the window, perfect sky, absolutely beautiful. had to stop and feed Scout and Holly (the cat and dog) and let Holly out to, well you can guess.

Anyway I go charging out, set my tripod down and look up – clouds had moved in. This situation has happened to me here before. There is always tonight / tomorrow morning and this should be the peak of the shower. Weather forecast says rain showers later today, hopefully clearing by morning.

So if you have the opportunity get outside and basically look up. The radiant or the point where the showers originate from is the constellation Perseus. Pretty easy to find, the finders map below centered at 03:45 local time shows Perseus can be found opposite of Ursa Major; if you think of this as the Big Dipper just follow the handle as you can see in this screen shot from The SkyX (click for a larger version):

There are many places you can find information, here are a couple I like:

Time and Date – You can enter your location and get a variety of helpful information tailored to your locale.

and of course: NASA’s InDepth Perseids page.

Don’t worry too much about finding the origin though, this is typically a very good show and the origin will be evident — GOOD LUCK!

Hubble Looks at Jupiter!

This is the latest look at Jupiter from the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA, ESA, A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center), and M.H. Wong (University of California, Berkeley); CC BY 4.0.

ESA: The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope reveals the intricate, detailed beauty of Jupiter’s clouds in this new image taken on 27 June 2019 by Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3, when the planet was 644 million kilometres from Earth — its closest distance this year. The image features the planet’s trademark Great Red Spot and a more intense colour palette in the clouds swirling in the planet’s turbulent atmosphere than seen in previous years.

ESA provided a high resolution version of the image above, really do check this out – Hi RES.

ULA to Launch AEHF-5

Oh no, the hold is being extended due to a first-stage anomaly.

Anomaly resolved! Now there is another, termed minor. Fixed.

FINALLY! Spectacular pre-dawn video.

United Launch Alliance is going to make another attempt to launch the AEHF-5 (Advanced Extremely High Frequency) satellite for the US military. I believe this is the third attempt owing to a couple of anomalies.

Spaceport: Cape Canaveral

Rocket: ULA Atlas V

Replays later in the day if needed.

It’s a plage – oh my

Oh wait a plage not a plague. Must be I am all obsessed with the book I’m reading, it’s about the cholera outbreak in 1854 London (The Ghost Map, Steven Johnson).

Actually I’ve seen a few of these in the past few months from monitoring SolarHam.

ESA: This image shows a snippet of the Sun up close, revealing a golden surface marked by a number of dark, blotchy sunspots, curving filaments, and lighter patches known as ‘plages’ – brighter regions often found near sunspots. The width of the image would cover roughly a third of the diameter of the solar disc. 

It was captured in 2015 from the site of the European Space Astronomy Center (ESAC) in Madrid, Spain, using a Solarmax 90 H-alpha telescope (9 cm in diameter) and a QHY5-II monochromatic camera. A grayscale 283-second video was initially created of the solar surface, and the best 30% of these 8222 frames were then combined and coloured to produce this image.

The part of the Sun shown here is known as the chromosphere (literally ‘sphere of colour’), one of the three main layers comprising our star. This layer sits just above the photosphere, the visible surface of the Sun with which we are most familiar. When viewed using a H-alpha telescope, as seen here, the chromosphere can reveal myriad intriguing features decorating the whole solar disc.

Sunspots are not permanent fixtures on the Sun. They exist for days or weeks at a time, and come about as intense magnetic fields become twisted and concentrated in a given place, stifling the flow of energy from the Sun’s interior to the surface. This leaves sunspots cooler than their surroundings, causing their darker appearance, while gas continues to flow both beneath and around these areas of magnetic disruption. 

The ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) mission, launched in 1995, has probed deeper into these features, characterised the flows in and around the spots themselves, and found that they form as magnetic fields break through the visible surface of the Sun. The work of missions such as SOHO will be continued by ESA’s upcoming Solar Orbiter, the first medium-class mission selected for ESA’s Cosmic Vision 2015-2025 Programme

Solar Orbiter will explore how the Sun creates and manipulates a patch of space known as the heliosphere – a bubble blown by the solar wind, an ongoing stream of charged particles heading out from the Sun into the Solar System. The mission will also clearly image the solar poles for the first time, and track magnetic activity as it builds up and gives rise to powerful flares and eruptions. Planned for launch in February 2020, Solar Orbiter will make significant breakthroughs in our understanding of how our host star works.

Read more about the Solar Orbiter testing campaign

SpaceX Launches AMOS-17

Heres the replay, fast forward about 17 minutes as there was a delay (I almost missed the live shot).

Launch time: 22:53 UT

Coverage should begin 15 minutes prior to launch.

Spaceport: Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida

There are thunderstorms in the area that could cause a delay or postponement.

PLUS! There was no attempt to land the first-stage but there was an attempt to catch the fairing with the SpaceX ship Ms. Tree: