Category Archives: NASA

The View in Front of InSight

Here’s a look from the Instrument Context Camera (ICC) looking towards the front of the InSight Lander on Mars.

The foot-pads of the lander seem to be pressed well into the Martian soil which has several small rocks scattered about. The rocks are in the subsoil as well and there could be such rocks blocking the “mole”, the probe that hammers itself into the ground to take thermal conductivity tests.

The mole hit some obstruction shortly after it began and has been stopped. There is a plan forward, the team was going to command a 10 or 15 minute hammering session to see if they can get through. They also were also to take a thermal conductivity reading, a 24 hour test, the results of which might be downloaded today (?). There have been no updates on either of these as yet.

Image:
NASA/JPL-Caltech

Bennu Close Up

Here’s a close up of the asteroid Bennu. The image is from NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft (caption below). You will get a larger version by clicking the image above, however, I encourage you to go to the main image on the NASA page and click that one, it is huge and the detail is amazing. Keep in mind I try to keep the image file size reasonable so people with slower connections don’t have to wait too long and that image is a lot larger in terms of file size – but it’s really good.

NASA: This trio of images acquired by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft shows a wide shot and two close-ups of a region in asteroid Bennu’s northern hemisphere. The wide-angle image (left), obtained by the spacecraft’s MapCam camera, shows a 590-foot (180-meter) wide area with many rocks, including some large boulders, and a “pond” of regolith that is mostly devoid of large rocks. The two closer images, obtained by the high-resolution PolyCam camera, show details of areas in the MapCam image, specifically a 50-foot (15 meter) boulder (top) and the regolith pond (bottom). The PolyCam frames are 101 feet (31 meters) across and the boulder depicted is approximately the same size as a humpback whale.

The images were taken on February 25 while the spacecraft was in orbit around Bennu, approximately 1.1 miles (1.8 km) from the asteroid’s surface. The observation plan for this day provided for one MapCam and two PolyCam images every 10 minutes, allowing for this combination of context and detail of Bennu’s surface.

Credit:  NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

Continuing Science

In a great example of studying data we already have NASA has selected teams to study actual physical evidence, moon rocks, from the Apollo missions. Thanks to judicious use of these samples to-date there is enough to use and hopefully more for the future when technology and methods continue to improve in order to gain the most we can. Someday we might replenish our stocks.

The image above is Harrison Schmitt collecting samples at Station 1 during the last of the Apollo mission to the moon. Schmitt as the pilot of the Lunar Module, part of a crew which included Commander Eugene Cernan and Command Module Pilot Ronald Evans. Image credit: NASA/Eugene A. Cernan.

Here’s the story from NASA: NASA has selected nine teams to continue the science legacy of the Apollo missions by studying pieces of the Moon that have been carefully stored and untouched for nearly 50 years. A total of $8 million has been awarded to the teams.

“By studying these precious lunar samples for the first time, a new generation of scientists will help advance our understanding of our lunar neighbor and prepare for the next era of exploration of the Moon and beyond, “ said Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, DC. “This exploration will bring with it new and unique samples into the best labs right here on Earth.”

Six of the nine teams will look at one of the three remaining lunar samples, from Apollo missions 15, 16, and 17, which have never been exposed to Earth’s atmosphere. The particular sample these teams will study came to Earth vacuum-sealed on the Moon by the Apollo 17 astronauts Harrison Schmitt and Gene Cernan in 1972. 

The Apollo 17 sample comprises about 800 grams (1.8 pounds) of material, still encased in a “drive tube” that was pounded into the lunar regolith to collect a core of material. That core preserves not just the rocks themselves but also the stratigraphy from below the surface so today’s scientists can, in a laboratory, study the rock layers exactly as they existed on the Moon. The core has been carefully stored at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, since December 1972. 

Other teams will be studying samples that have also been specially curated, some from Apollo 17 that were brought to Earth and then kept frozen, and samples from the Apollo 15 mission which have been stored in helium since 1971.

NASA has only collected samples from a few places on the Moon so far, but NASA knows from the remote sensing data that the Moon is a complex geologic body. From orbit, the agency has identified types of rocks and minerals that are not present in the Apollo sample collection.  

“Returned samples are an investment in the future. These samples were deliberately saved so we can take advantage of today’s more advanced and sophisticated technology to answer questions we didn’t know we needed to ask,” said Lori Glaze, acting director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division in Washington, DC. 

The nine institutions include:

NASA Ames Research Center/Bay Area Environmental Research Institute: A team led by Alexander Sehlke will complete an experiment started 50 years ago by studying the frozen lunar samples from Apollo 17 to see how volatiles like water are stored in the radiation environment of the lunar surface, which is not protected by an atmosphere like Earth. 

NASA Ames – A team led by David Blake and Richard Walrothwill study the vacuum-sealed sample to study “space weathering” or how exposure to the space environment affects the Moon’s surface. 

NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center: A team led by Jamie Elsila Cook will study the vacuumed-sealed sample to better understand how small organic molecules—namely, precursors to amino acids—are preserved on the Moon. 

NASA Goddard: A team led by Barbara Cohen and Natalie Curran will study the vacuum-sealed sample to investigate the geologic history of the Apollo 17 site. They’ll specifically be looking at the abundance of noble gases in the sample, which can tell them about the sample’s age. 

University of Arizona:A team led by Jessica Barnes will study how curation affects the amount of hydrogen-bearing minerals in lunar soil, which will help us better understand how water is locked in minerals on the Moon. 

University of California Berkeley: A team led by Kees Welten will study how micrometeorite and meteorite impacts may have affected the geology of the lunar surface.

US Naval Research Laboratory. A team led by Katherine Burgess will look at the frozen samples and the samples stored in helium to study how airless bodies are affected by exposure to the space environment. 

University of New Mexico: A team led by Chip Shearer will look at the vacuum-sealed sample to study the geologic history of the Apollo 17 site. They will be studying samples from a region that had been cold enough for water to freeze—called a “cold trap.” This will be the first time a sample from one of these cold traps will be examined in the lab.

Mount Holyoke College/Planetary Science Institute: A team led by Darby Dyar will look at both the vacuum-sealed samples and samples stored on helium to study volcanic activity on the Moon. They’ll specifically look at tiny glass beads that formed rapidly during an ancient lunar eruption.

The samples won’t be opened right away. First, the teams will work together and with the curation staff at NASA Johnson to determine the best way to open the sample to avoid contaminating them and maximize the science to be gained.

The teams for the Apollo Next-Generation Sample Analysis grants were selected by the Planetary Science Division and will be funded by the Lunar Discovery and Exploration Program. 

Water Movement on the Moon?

The image is our moon, this is the far-side unseen from Earth courtesy of NASA and Arizona State University.

Water movement on the moon?

NASA — Scientists, using an instrument aboard NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), have observed water molecules moving around the dayside of the Moon.

A paper published in Geophysical Research Letters describes how Lyman Alpha Mapping Project (LAMP) measurements of the sparse layer of molecules temporarily stuck to the surface helped characterize lunar hydration changes over the course of a day.

Up until the last decade or so, scientists thought the Moon was arid, with any water existing mainly as pockets of ice in permanently shaded craters near the poles. More recently, scientists have identified surface water in sparse populations of molecules bound to the lunar soil, or regolith. The amount and locations vary based on the time of day. This water is more common at higher latitudes and tends to hop around as the surface heats up.

“This is an important new result about lunar water, a hot topic as our nation’s space program returns to a focus on lunar exploration,” said Dr. Kurt Retherford, the principal investigator of the LAMP instrument from Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas. “We recently converted the LAMP’s light collection mode to measure reflected signals on the lunar dayside with more precision, allowing us to track more accurately where the water is and how much is present.”

Water molecules remain tightly bound to the regolith until surface temperatures peak near lunar noon. Then, molecules thermally desorb and can bounce to a nearby location that is cold enough for the molecule to stick or populate the Moon’s extremely tenuous atmosphere or exosphere, until temperatures drop and the molecules return to the surface. SwRI’s Dr. Michael Poston, now a research scientist on the LAMP team, had previously conducted extensive experiments with water and lunar samples collected by the Apollo missions. This research revealed the amount of energy needed to remove water molecules from lunar materials, helping scientists understand how water is bound to surface materials.

“Lunar hydration is tricky to measure from orbit, due to the complex way that light reflects off of the lunar surface,” Poston said. “Previous research reported quantities of hopping water molecules that were too large to explain with known physical processes. I’m excited about these latest results because the amount of water interpreted here is consistent with what lab measurements indicate is possible.

Scientists have hypothesized that hydrogen ions in the solar wind may be the source of most of the Moon’s surface water. With that in mind, when the Moon passes behind the Earth and is shielded from the solar wind, the “water spigot” should essentially turn off. However, the water observed by LAMP does not decrease when the Moon is shielded by the Earth and the region influenced by its magnetic field, suggesting water builds up over time, rather than “raining” down directly from the solar wind.

“These results aid in understanding the lunar water cycle and will ultimately help us learn about accessibility of water that can be used by humans in future missions to the Moon,” said Amanda Hendrix, a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute and lead author of the paper. “Lunar water can potentially be used by humans to make fuel or to use for radiation shielding or thermal management; if these materials do not need to be launched from Earth, that makes these future missions more affordable.”

“This result is an important step in advancing the water story on the Moon and is a result of years of accumulated data from the LRO mission,” said John Keller, LRO deputy project scientist from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Goddard manages the LRO mission for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. Funding for the research came from LRO, and the team received additional support from a NASA Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI) cooperative agreement.

NASA is leading a sustainable return to the Moon with commercial and international partners to expand human presence in space and bring back new knowledge and opportunities.

For more information on LRO, visit:
www.nasa.gov/lro

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

Demo-1 Docking Replay

Here is a replay of the Crew-Dragon docking to the International Space Station. Thanks to Videosfromspace for the replay.

Hatch Opening. COMPLETE! 12:07 UTC

~~~~~~~~

NASA TV coverage of the historic SpaceX Demo-1 mission.

I had a technical issue but I cleared that up.

The hatch opening is scheduled for 08:30 ET / 13:30 UT.

They are putting Crew-Dragon through it’s paces right now. I like the timing overlay. The image of Crew-Dragon alone in the black is rather surreal.

Two critical steps remain, docking and undocking/return. Scratch docking, we have at least a soft-dock, I have lost audio on two devices. I have captions going on one of them (this feed actually).

I wonder how Ripley enjoyed his flight. Who’s Ripley?

Docking complete! Audio is back too.

~~~~~~~~~~

Here we have the docking. Fingers crossed for success; funny that implies luck, but luck should not and must not be a factor. I don’t care – good luck SpaceX!

SpaceX and NASA Ready for Demo-1

The first launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft aboard the company’s Falcon 9 rocket is now only tomorrow.

For this first flight which is of course a test the flight will not be crewed and is aptly named Demo-1.

Demo-1 is scheduled for 02:49 EST / 07:49 UTC from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A. This launch is a VERY significant step because it will be the first launch of a commercially built American rocket and spacecraft designed to carry astronauts to the International Space Station.

According to NASA, meteorologists with the U.S. Air Force’s 45th Weather Squadron continue to predict an 80 percent chance of favorable weather for launch on Saturday morning, with the possibility of thick clouds or cumulus clouds posing the main concern.

Join us here for this historic event!

Image: NASA

Lunar Swirls

NASA: “These patterns, called ‘lunar swirls,’ appear almost painted on the surface of the moon,” said John Keller of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “They are unique; we’ve only seen these features on the moon, and their origin has remained a mystery since their discovery.” Keller is project scientist for NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) mission, which made the observations.

Lunar swirls can be tens of miles across and appear in groups or just as an isolated feature. Previous observations yielded two significant clues about their formation: First, they appear where ancient bits of magnetic field are embedded in the lunar crust (although not every “fossil” magnetic field on the moon has a lunar swirl). Second, the bright areas in the swirls appear to be less weathered than their surroundings. The space environment is harsh; many things can cause material exposed to space to change chemically and darken over time, including impacts from microscopic meteorites and the effects of the solar wind – a million-mile-per-hour stream of electrically conducting gas blown from the surface of the sun.

Those clues led to three prominent theories about how the swirls formed. The swirls and the magnetic fields could both have formed from plumes of material ejected by comet impacts. Alternatively, perhaps when fine dust particles get lofted by micrometeorite impacts, an existing magnetic field over the swirls sorts them according to their susceptibility to magnetism, forming light and dark patterns with different compositions. Finally, since particles in the solar wind (electrons and ions) are electrically charged, they respond to magnetic forces. Perhaps the magnetic field shields the surface from weathering by the solar wind.

In the new research, teams of scientists created computer models that provide new insights into how the magnetic shield hypothesis could work. “The problem with the magnetic shield idea is that the embedded magnetic fields on the moon are very weak – about 300 times weaker than Earth’s magnetic field,” said Bill Farrell of NASA Goddard. “It’s hard to see how they would have the strength to deflect the solar wind ions.” Farrell leads Goddard’s DREAM-2 Center for Space Environments (Dynamic Response of the Environment at Asteroids, the Moon, and moons of Mars) which is funded by NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI) to conduct the model research. 

The new models reveal that the magnetic field can create a strong electric field when the solar wind attempts to flow through. It is this brawny electric potential of many hundreds of Volts that could deflect and slow particles in the solar wind. This would reduce the weathering from the solar wind, leaving brighter regions over protected areas. The new models are published separately as a series of three papers, one in Icarus on March 1, 2016 by lead author Andrew Poppe of the University of California at Berkeley; one in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics on June 18, 2015 by lead author Shahab Fatemi of University of California, Berkeley; and one in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets on November 25, 2015 by lead author Michael Zimmerman of The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Maryland.

New observations from LRO appear to provide support for the magnetic shield hypothesis, but don’t rule out the other ideas. “Until you have somebody making measurements on the lunar surface we may not get a definitive answer, but the new observations that analyze the swirls in ultraviolet and far-ultraviolet light are consistent with earlier observations that indicate the swirls are less weathered than their surroundings,” said Keller. The new observations are the subject of two papers published in Icarus by lead author Brett Denevi of The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Maryland on January 21, 2016 and lead author Amanda Hendrix of the Planetary Science Institute, Tucson, Arizona on February 4, 2016.

The DREAM-2 teams want to continue to develop their models to see how the magnetic shield responds to different strengths of the solar wind and various times of the lunar day, when the solar wind blows from different directions. They also want to model the physical and chemical processes of space weathering to better understand how it can change the lunar surface. The LRO team plans to modify the LAMP instrument (Lyman Alpha Mapping Project) on LRO to improve its signal-to-noise ratio for dayside observations, which will dramatically improve its ability to study this problem.

The research was funded by the LRO mission and the DREAM-2 center. DREAM-2 is part of SSERVI at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. LRO is managed by NASA Goddard for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Bill Steigerwald

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

Credits: NASA LRO WAC science team

NASA Approves SPHEREx

NASA – NASA has selected a new space mission that will help astronomers understand both how our universe evolved and how common are the ingredients for life in our galaxy’s planetary systems.

The Spectro-Photometer for the History of the Universe, Epoch of Reionization and Ices Explorer (SPHEREx) mission is a planned two-year mission funded at $242 million (not including launch costs) and targeted to launch in 2023. 

“I’m really excited about this new mission,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “Not only does it expand the United States’ powerful fleet of space-based missions dedicated to uncovering the mysteries of the universe, it is a critical part of a balanced science program that includes missions of various sizes.”

SPHEREx will survey the sky in optical as well as near-infrared light which, though not visible to the human eye, serves as a powerful tool for answering cosmic questions. Astronomers will use the mission to gather data on more than 300 million galaxies, as well as more than 100 million stars in our own Milky Way.

“This amazing mission will be a treasure trove of unique data for astronomers,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “It will deliver an unprecedented galactic map containing ‘fingerprints’ from the first moments in the universe’s history. And we’ll have new clues to one of the greatest mysteries in science: What made the universe expand so quickly less than a nanosecond after the big bang?”

SPHEREx will survey hundreds of millions of galaxies near and far, some so distant their light has taken 10 billion years to reach Earth. In the Milky Way, the mission will search for water and organic molecules – essentials for life, as we know it – in stellar nurseries, regions where stars are born from gas and dust, as well as disks around stars where new planets could be forming.

Every six months, SPHEREx will survey the entire sky using technologies adapted from Earth satellites and Mars spacecraft. The mission will create a map of the entire sky in 96 different color bands, far exceeding the color resolution of previous all-sky maps. It also will identify targets for more detailed study by future missions, such as NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope and Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope.

NASA’s Astrophysics Explorers Program requested proposals for new missions in September 2016. Nine proposals were submitted, and two mission concepts were selected for further study in August 2017. After a detailed review by a panel of NASA and external scientists and engineers, NASA determined that the SPHEREx concept study offered the best science potential and most feasible development plan.

The mission’s principal investigator is James Bock of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, California. Caltech will work with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to develop the mission payload. JPL will also manage the mission.

Ball Aerospace in Broomfield, Colorado, will provide the SPHEREx spacecraft and mission integration. The Korea Astronomy & Space Science Institute in Daejeon, Republic of Korea, will contribute test equipment and science analysis.

NASA’s Explorer program, managed by the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is the agency’s oldest continuous program, designed to provide frequent, low-cost access to space using principal investigator-led space science investigations relevant to the Astrophysics and Heliophysics programs in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

The program has launched more than 90 missions, beginning in 1958 with Explorer 1, which discovered the Earth’s radiation belts. Another Explorer mission, the Cosmic Background Explorer, which launched in 1989, led to a Nobel Prize.

Image: NASA