Monday, September 12, 2016

Jupiter showers its moon Europa with enough radiation to kill a human in just a few days. Europa must also contend with the massive planet’s powerful tidal forces. The moon literally creaks as Jupiter’s bulk rends its frozen surface in deep crevasses, pushing and pulling the ice upward and downward by tens of meters every few days. And with only a very tenuous atmosphere, it is so very cold: -210 degrees Celsius.

Yet as forbidding as Europa’s surface may be, just a few kilometers below lies the largest ocean in the known Universe. It dwarfs any on Earth, encircling the entire moon and plunging as far as 100 kilometers deep. The tidal forces that wrench Europa's icy surface also tug on the core of this ocean, dissipating heat and providing ample energy to warm the ocean.

Outside of Earth, many astrobiologists say Europa’s vast, dark ocean probably offers the best hope for finding life elsewhere in the Solar System. For these scientists, Europa beckons like the sirens of a Homeric epic.
NASA is very publicly planning a mission to Europa in the 2020s, one that will soar over the intriguing moon dozens of times. Yet the reality is more thrilling. Quietly, the same engineers who masterminded the daring Curiosity landing on Mars in 2012 have been plotting how best to drop a lander onto the nightmare glacier. In early November, they presented their preliminary findings for a 230-kg lander to the one person in the world who can, and who dearly wants to, make that happen.

“I told them to do whatever it takes,” said Representative John Culberson after meeting with the NASA scientists. “All of humanity is going to want to know what’s under the ice.”
A God-fearing, cowboy-boot wearing conservative Texas Republican, Culberson is far from a household name. But as chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee with oversight of NASA’s budget, he has the final say on the agency’s budget in the House. As much as anything else he has ever wanted in his life, Culberson yearns for NASA to land on Europa. And with the federal purse in hand, he’s doing everything possible to make it happen.
Culberson isn’t the first to fall under the moon’s spell. In Greek mythology, Zeus, the Greek counterpart to the Roman god Jupiter, abducted the Phoenician princess Europa and made her the queen of Crete. The moon is named after her. In the seminal science fiction series Space Odyssey, novelist Arthur C. Clarke recognized Europa’s special place in the Solar System. At the end of the series’ second novel, 2010: Odyssey Two, a ship sent to Jupiter appears to receive a message from aliens: “All these worlds are yours except Europa. Attempt no landing there.”
Sorry HAL, we’re going. It’s difficult to imagine a more compelling mission for NASA in the next 10 to 15 years than the exploration of Europa. NASA touts its human “Journey to Mars,” but in reality the most astronauts will accomplish by the mid-2020s is a repeat of the Apollo 8 flight around the Moon, which already happened in 1968. Likewise, while Curiosity awed the world, it was the eighth probe NASA has successfully landed on Mars. Cold, dry, and probably lifeless today, Mars no longer seems all that exotic.

Europa, by contrast, is undiscovered country. NASA last visited the Jupiter system in the 1990s and early 2000s with the Galileo spacecraft. Galileo snapped images of Europa during 11 flybys, but everything about those photos ended up limited. The best of those pictures had a resolution of only about 10 meters per pixel. The spacecraft stored those images on a tape recorder with a capacity of 114 megabytes, but a flawed rewind mode hampered even that modest device. Additionally, Galileo’s closest approach to Europa brought the probe only to within about 200 km of the moon’s surface.
Despite all of this, Europa dazzled, and Galileo confirmed that a large ocean must exist beneath the moon’s icy shell. The spacecraft’s tantalizing findings left scientists grasping for more. During the most recent “decadal survey” published in 2011, a document in which the scientific community sets priorities for planetary explanation, a mission to return a sample Martian soil and a Europa orbiter were rated as the two highest priorities.
In the wake of the decadal survey, NASA administrator Charles Bolden was asked about the possibility of a Europa mission during Congressional hearings. All he would say is that he couldn’t do it. The agency, he said, had enough on its plate. And it's true, NASA does have a lot to do, and its budget has a lot of mouths to feed.

Culberson, at the time not yet the chairman but still a member of the subcommittee, kept asking about Europa. If NASA could spend more than $100 million annually on education, could it not at least begin spending a few tens of millions of dollars to study a mission to the most intriguing ocean in the Solar System? NASA was reluctant to take on a new program that would ultimately cost billions, however.
Eventually Culberson stopped asking. As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, he did what such members can do—he appropriated. For the 2013 budget, he added $43 million to NASA’s budget expressly for a Europa mission. Bolden didn’t want the money. So in 2014 Culberson gave him more, $80 million, directing NASA to work on Europa. Finally, in its fiscal year 2015 budget request, NASA acquiesced and created a Europa program. The president’s budget called for $15 million to begin preliminary studies. Culberson appropriated $100 million.Hey a new way to get money!!!!
It’s not clear why NASA ultimately embraced the Europa mission. Bolden, appointed by a Democratic president, and Culberson, a staunch Republican who regularly derides Obama, don’t have a good relationship. Perhaps for NASA, Europa simply became irresistible after another key discovery in late 2013.

That’s when NASA announced that the Hubble Space Telescope’s spectrograph had observed a faint aurora near the moon’s south pole. This aurora, astronomers concluded, was very likely caused by excited oxygen and hydrogen atoms that Jupiter’s magnetic field had broken apart.
How did that water get there? The obvious explanation was plumes of water venting into space from Europa’s oceans. Intriguingly, active jets were only observed when the moon was farthest from Jupiter in its slightly eccentric, 3.5-day orbit. The researchers suspected that Jupiter’s tidal forces would wrench the vents open at the furthest point and then constrict the gaps closer in to the planet. For NASA, the presence of plumes proved a game changer.

“When we had Galileo at Jupiter we didn’t look for plumes because we didn’t know they were there,” Jim Green, a space physicist who oversees NASA’s Planetary Sciences division, said in an interview. “They were probably all over the place, and we probably missed opportunities all over the place. We were just too ignorant to recognize the opportunities.”
artistsconceptmain-full_1-980x728.jpg Plumes of water vapor on Europa?Possible!!!!
Shortly after the Galileo probe’s demise in 2003, NASA’s next major mission to the outer planets (the Cassini spacecraft) arrived in the Saturn system. It carried a much more modern scientific payload, and soon the probe found evidence of geysers on Enceladus, which rise hundreds of kilometers into space because of the tiny moon’s slight gravity. As Cassini flew through the plumes right over the vents, it observed they were active along their entire length.

Such cracks on Europa might offer a window to the oceans below, and Green seems as eager to peer into them as Culberson does. “This mission,” he said enthusiastically, “is only getting better.”
Officially, Green says NASA hasn’t decided whether the Europa spacecraft will carry a more expensive lander or some kind of suicide flyer that will detach from the main vehicle, descend into an active crevasse, and take data all the way down before being swallowed up by the moon’s icy maw. A final decision should be made some time in 2016.
The man who could afford to pay for a more pricey lander has, unofficially, already decided. After three years of tucking money into NASA’s budget to pay for Europa studies, Culberson traveled to the hilly Southern California campus of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in May of this year to see how those funds were being spent.

During two days of meetings hosted by Charles Elachi, the Lebanese-born director of the laboratory, Culberson heard about the various programs being undertaken at the storied facility. Founded by rocket scientists, JPL has led or partially sponsored nearly every major robotic probe in NASA’s history from America’s first satellite, Explorer 1, through the Voyager probes, to Galileo, Cassini, and all of the Martian landers. And although he nodded attentively during briefings on a number of topics, what Culberson really wanted to hear about was progress being made on the Europa mission, called a Clipper, because it will swoop into the harsh radiation environment of Europa periodically before flying out to more benign space to preserve its lifetime.

Eventually Elachi and his engineers came to the Clipper. During a two-hour meeting, several engineers walked Culberson through the various options a Europa spacecraft could employ to better understand the nightmare glacier. The Clipper, for example, might deploy cubesats to dip down near the planet and perhaps sample any plumes emanating from its crevasses. It could drop a short-lived impactor or missile-like penetrator that would strike the icy world at about 700km/h. It might also deliver a 100 kg “rough lander” to strike the surface at about 35km/h and retain the capability to do some basic science.

Finally—but this would be expensive, the scientists warned, perhaps adding as much as $1 billion to the mission’s cost—they discussed a “soft lander” that would touch down at less than 5km/h. This lander could bring a much more sophisticated scientific payload to the moon’s surface, and it would offer the best chance of finding life.
For Culberson, it was an easy decision. Do the soft lander, he said. Why traverse half of the Solar System if you’re not going to look for life? He would find the money. He told the engineers to get to work on adding a soft lander to the Clipper.

A couple of weeks later, at the end of May, NASA announced that it had selected nine scientific instruments for its Europa mission. According to the space agency’s news release, the solar-powered spacecraft would launch in the 2020s and, after reaching the Jupiter system, fall into a long, looping orbit around the gas giant. During a three-year period, it would perform 45 flybys at altitudes ranging from 25 kilometers to 2,700 kilometers. The release made no mention of a lander, but it did note the president’s budget for fiscal year 2016 had requested $30 million to continue developing the mission.
Meanwhile Culberson, energized after his discussions with JPL engineers, went back to work in Washington DC. Elachi and the other lander experts had told Culberson they would need more than $100 million during the coming year to rapidly develop the lander concept in time to make the Europa mission. Eventually, the House passed a budget for the 2016 fiscal year that included $140 million specifically for Europa.

Although the budget process stalled in the summer and fall months, Congress and the White House recently struck a deal for the next two budget years that allows for modest increases in discretionary spending, including NASA’s budget. When that appropriation finally gets approved later this year, will the $140 million for the Europa program be there?

During the first weekend in November, instead of returning to his home in west Houston or attending a fundraiser, Culberson went back to JPL. He’d given the engineers six months, and he was curious to learn about their progress, however clandestine, with development of a lander.

Whenever he visits JPL, Culberson feels almost at home, even though many of the scientists and engineers at the lab do not share his politics, which veer toward the hard right wing of the political spectrum. Both the Heritage Foundation and American Conservative Union rank him comfortably above most Republicans in the House on their conservative scorecards. But Culberson is as much defined by his politics as a curiosity about the natural world. With science, he finds common cause with the JPL engineers.
Culberson grew up in Houston, just down the road from Rice Stadium where John F. Kennedy gave his famous “We choose to go to the Moon” speech in 1962. He was six years old at the time. Later he and his brother would shoot off model rockets from Rice Stadium and pretend to be astronauts in their backyard. The family vacationed in Florida twice to see Apollo launches.

Politics ultimately called, and he ended up taking a Congressional seat that covers much of the affluent western suburbs of Houston. His district doesn’t include Johnson Space Center, but as a member of the House Appropriations Committee, its leaders there look to him for support. Yet they sometimes grumble that the Houston House member seems more interested in JPL than his hometown space center.
During the November 2014 midterm elections, Culberson won his eighth term in Congress, and, finally, seniority brought him to a cherished chairmanship—not of the entire Appropriations Committee, but the Commerce, Justice and Science Subcommittee that oversees NASA’s budget. This gave him immense power to set priorities for the space agency. Instead of trying to deliver pork for Johnson Space Center, he’s continued to show more interest in planetary science.

These interests have brought him allies, including the decidedly left-leaning Bill Nye, chief executive of The Planetary Society, a nonprofit organization that promotes the exploration of space. The organization has no qualms about working with Culberson, said Casey Dreier, the Society’s director of advocacy. In fact, the society is thrilled to have found an able champion in Congress for planetary exploration.
First, the bad news. Adding a lander to the Clipper will require additional technical work and necessitate a launch delay until late 2023. At that time, the massive Space Launch System rocket NASA is developing could deliver it to Jupiter in 4.6 years. Once there, the lander would separate from the Clipper, parking in a low-radiation orbit.

The Clipper would then proceed to reconnoiter Europa, diving into the harsh radiation environment to observe the moon and then zipping back out into cleaner space to relay its data back to Earth. Over a three-year period, the Clipper would image 95 percent of the world at about 50 meters per pixel and three percent at a very high resolution of 0.5 meters per pixel. With this data, scientists could find a suitable landing site.

The JPL engineers have concluded the best way to deliver the lander to Europa’s jagged surface is by way of a sky crane mechanism, like the one successfully used in the last stage of Curiosity’s descent to the surface of Mars. With four steerable engines and an autonomous system to avoid hazards, the lander would be lowered to the moon’s surface by an umbilical cord.
Although the SLS rocket has been designed to lift as much as 70 tons into low-Earth orbit, it can only propel a small fraction of that across the 800 million kilometers of space to Jupiter, and fuel and the Clipper will consume most of that mass. The engineers have calculated they can spare a total of about 510 kg for the sky crane and lander, and of the 230 kg lander, about 20 to 30 kg can be given over to scientific instruments. That may seem slight, but it’s equivalent to what the Spirit and Opportunity rovers had to work with on Mars.

That payload would contain a mass spectrometer to identify any complex biological molecules. The engineers are also trying to add a second type of spectrometer, based on Raman scattering, to provide independent confirmation of any significant findings. “Honestly,” Culberson said, “if you’re going to go all that way to determine if there’s life on another world, why wouldn’t you double-check it?”
To gather samples for the spectrometers, the lander will have a scooper and sampling arm with at least one set of counter-rotating saw blades that could penetrate to a depth of about 10 cm. At Europa’s low surface temperatures, its ice is harder than steel.
PIA14839-980x551.jpg
To get the lander safe to the surface of Europa ,they will used the sky crane like one they used to land the last mars rover!It just take some redesigning!!!!
Scientists will attempt to find this hardware a landing site near an active crevasse. If the Hubble telescope data is correct, this would offer a potential opening to the ocean far below. Ideally, if the lander can be placed near a vent, it might sample spouts from the ocean below. The engineers are also working through the feasibility of more exotic options, such as bots that might detach from the lander and examine the crevasses.

On Europa’s harsh surface, the battery-powered lander would have about a 10-day lifespan, although solar cells might extend that further. But with dim sunlight and continual radiation, the lander’s functional time would necessarily be short.
Unless they used RTGs! But this would add weight to the lander.
Finally, the JPL engineers are working on a “plume probe,” not as part of the lander but which would detach from the Clipper and fly close to the moon’s surface, perhaps 2 km or lower, to obtain samples and relay that data back to the Clipper.

If all this sounds fantastical, well, consider the source. The engineers and planetary scientists at JPL have a motto, Dare Mighty Things. The very idea of landing on a creaking ice world nearly 1 billion kilometers from Earth seems absurd. But there is a place in America where such missions are considered and discussed with all due gravity. It’s in a conference room at JPL known as “Left Field,” precisely because that’s where crazy ideas come out of.

As to what the lander might ultimately discover, it is impossible to say. That is the joy of science, delving into the unknown. The New Horizons probe recently found unexpected wonders such as active geology and ice volcanoes on Pluto, at the cold edge of the Solar System. Imagine why lies in wait at Europa, a far more dynamic world capable of supporting life.
One of the scientists in attendance at the November briefings with Culberson was the physicist and five-time astronaut John Grunsfeld. He was enthusiastic, Culberson recalled. “Grunsfeld said several times during the briefing that if this mission is like others we’ve flown to other mysterious worlds, Europa will prove far more interesting than we can ever imagine.”

Grunsfeld is NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, which means he oversees all of the agency’s scientific activities, including planetary science. His presence at those meetings and enthusiasm for the mission signifies the space agency has finally bought fully into Europa. And why wouldn’t it, Culberson mused. “I cannot think of anything that would energize the public more than the discovery of life on another world,” he said. “It would inspire the public to support NASA even further.”
There are very few guarantees when it comes to spaceflight, and especially so with NASA’s budget. The agency is bedeviled by a year-to-year budgetary subsistence that makes long-term planning a continuous waltz of uncertainty. But consider this: the US House is solidly in Republican hands, and Culberson probably has more than five years left in his post as subcommittee chairman. That gets the Europa mission through 2020, to within three years of launch, by which point NASA and the scientific community will be heavily invested in the spacecraft.
Over in the Senate, he has allies, too. Key Republican and Democratic senators support development of the Space Launch System, which is so expensive to build and fly that NASA’s human exploration program can’t afford to build payloads for crewed missions. The big rocket needs meaningful launches, and getting the Clipper to Jupiter fast would fit snugly into its launch manifest. Even if the SLS rocket never flies, private companies such as SpaceX and United Launch Alliance are building smaller, but still capable, heavy-lift rockets that could get a lander to Europa, albeit over a longer period of time.

Now that NASA has the will, a way can be found. And so humans will wake the nightmare glacier, knowing not what secrets sleep within.
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As you can tell there is far more water on these moon than the Earth.
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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Solar Probe Plus

 Solar Probe Plus or Solar Probe+, previously NASA Solar Probe, is a planned robotic spacecraft to probe the outer corona of the Sun.It will approach to within 8.5 solar radii (5.9 million kilometers or 3.67 million miles) to the 'surface' (photosphere) of the Sun.The project was announced as a new mission start in the fiscal 2009 budget year. On May 1, 2008 Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory announced it will design and build the spacecraft, on a schedule to launch it in 2015. The launch date has since been pushed back to 2018,with the Delta IV Heavy as the launch vehicle.This was due to budget matters.
The mission is designed to survive the harsh environment near the Sun, where the incident solar intensity is approximately 520 times the intensity at Earth orbit, by the use of a solar shadow-shield. The solar shield, at the front of the spacecraft, is made of reinforced carbon-carbon composite. The spacecraft systems, and the scientific instruments, are located in the umbra of the shield, where direct light from the sun is fully blocked. The primary power for the mission will be by use of a dual system of photovoltaic arrays. A primary photovoltaic array, used for the portion of the mission outside 0.25 AU, is retracted behind the shadow shield during the close approach to the Sun, and a much smaller secondary array powers the spacecraft through closest approach. This secondary array uses pumped-fluid cooling to maintain operating temperature.The first time in history where they are going to used water like stuff to cool down the space probe as it get within 3 million miles from the sun.
 It would used flyby of Venus to get the orbit closer to the sun. The shield is base on design of the  MESSENGER space probe that orbit Mercury,This shield s 4inch thick.They wanted to do this for 50 years but the tect wasn't there let. They are also planing a solar orbiter this is between NASA and the ESA
In September 2010, NASA selected five investigations for Solar Probe Plus:
Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons Investigation, which will specifically count the most abundant particles in the solar wind — electrons, protons and helium ions — and measure their properties. The investigation also is designed to catch some of the particles in a special cup (known as a Faraday cup) for direct analysis.  Principal Investigator: Justin C. Kasper, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Cambridge, Mass.
The Wide-field Imager, a telescope that will make 3-D images of the sun's corona, or atmosphere. The experiment actually will see the solar wind and provide 3-D images of clouds and shocks as they approach and pass the spacecraft. This investigation complements instruments on the spacecraft providing direct measurements by imaging the plasma the other instruments sample. Principal Investigator: Russell Howard, Naval Research Laboratory, Washington
The Fields Experiment, which will make direct measurements of electric and magnetic fields, radio emissions, and shock waves that course through the Sun's atmospheric plasma. The experiment also serves as a giant dust detector, registering voltage signatures when specks of space dust hit the spacecraft's antenna. Principal Investigator: Stuart Bale, University of California Space Sciences Laboratory, Berkeley, Calif.
The Integrated Science Investigation of the Sun, which consists of two instruments that will take an inventory of elements in the Sun's atmosphere using a mass spectrometer to weigh and sort ions in the vicinity of the spacecraft. Principal Investigator: David McComas, Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio.
               
Heliospheric Origins with Solar Probe Plus Principal Investigator Marco Velli, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., is the mission's observatory scientist, responsible for serving as a senior scientist on the science working group. He will provide an independent assessment of scientific performance and act as a community advocate for the mission.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Pluto’s Interaction with the Solar Wind is Unique, Study Finds

Pluto behaves less like a comet than expected and somewhat more like a planet like Mars or Venus in the way it interacts with the solar wind, a continuous stream of charged particles from the sun.
This is according to the first analysis of Pluto’s interaction with the solar wind, funded by NASA’s New Horizons mission and published today in the Journal of Geophysical Research – Space Physics by the American Geophysical Union (AGU).
Using data from the Solar Wind Around Pluto (SWAP) instrument from the New Horizons July 2015 flyby, scientists have for the first time observed the material coming off of Pluto’s atmosphere and studied how it interacts with the solar wind, leading to yet another “Pluto surprise.”
“This is a type of interaction we’ve never seen before anywhere in our solar system,” said David J. McComas, lead author of the study. McComas, professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University and vice president for the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. “The results are astonishing.” McComas leads the SWAP instrument aboard New Horizons; he also led the development of SWAP when he was at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio, Texas.
Space physicists say that they now have a treasure trove of information about how Pluto’s atmosphere interacts with the solar wind. Solar wind is the plasma that spews from the sun into the solar system at a supersonic 100 million miles per hour (160 million kilometers per hour), bathing planets, asteroids, comets and interplanetary space in a soup of mostly protons and electrons.
Previously, most researchers thought that Pluto was characterized more like a comet, which has a large region of gentle slowing of the solar wind, as opposed to the abrupt diversion solar wind encounters at a planet like Mars or Venus. Instead, like a car that’s part gas- and part battery-powered, Pluto is a hybrid, researchers say.
So Pluto continues to confound. “These results speak to the power of exploration. Once again we’ve gone to a new kind of place and found ourselves discovering entirely new kinds of expressions in nature,” said SwRI’s Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator.
Since it’s so far from the sun – an average of about 3.7 billion miles, the farthest planet in the solar system – and because it’s the smallest, scientists thought Pluto’s gravity would not be strong enough to hold heavy ions in its extended atmosphere. But, “Pluto’s gravity clearly is enough to keep material relatively confined,” McComas said.
The researchers were able to separate the heavy ions of methane, the main gas escaping from Pluto’s atmosphere, from the light ions of hydrogen that come from the sun using the SWAP instrument.
Among additional Pluto findings:
  • Like Earth, Pluto has a long ion tail, that extends downwind at least a distance of about 100 Pluto radii (73,800 miles/118,700 kilometers, almost three times the circumference of Earth), loaded with heavy ions from the atmosphere and with “considerable structure.”
  • Pluto’s obstruction of the solar wind upwind of the planet is smaller than had been thought. The solar wind isn’t blocked until about the distance of a couple planetary radii (1,844 miles/3,000 kilometers, about the distance between Chicago and Los Angeles.)
  • Pluto has a very thin boundary of Pluto’s tail of heavy ions and the sheath of the shocked solar wind that presents an obstacle to its flow.
Heather Elliott, astrophysicist at SwRI and co-author on the paper, notes, “Comparing the solar wind-Pluto interaction to the solar wind-interaction for other planets and bodies is interesting because the physical conditions are different for each, and the dominant physical processes depend on those conditions.”
These findings offer clues to the magnetized plasmas that one might find around other stars, said McComas. “The range of interaction with the solar wind is quite diverse, and this gives some comparison to help us better understand the connections in our solar system and beyond.”

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

White Rock Fingers on Mars

Intrigued by the possibility that they could be salt deposits left over as an ancient lakebed dried-up, detailed studies of these fingers now indicate a more mundane possibility: volcanic ash. Studying the exact color of the formation indicated the possible volcanic origin. The light material appears to have eroded away from surrounding area, indicating a very low-density substance. The stark contrast between the rocks and the surrounding sand is compounded by the unusual darkness of the sand. The featured picture was taken with the Thermal Emission Imaging System on the Mars Odyssey, the longest serving spacecraft currently orbiting Mars. The image spans about 10 kilometers inside a larger crater.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

A Dark Sand Dune on Mars

What is that dark sand dune doing on Mars? NASA's robotic rover Curiosity has been studying it to find out, making this the first-ever up-close investigation of an active sand dune on another world. Named Namib Dune, the dark sand mound stands about 4 meters tall and, along with the other Bagnold Dunes, is located on the northwestern flank of Mount Sharp. The featured image was taken last month and horizontally compressed here for comprehensibility. Wind is causing the dune to advance about one meter a year across the light bedrock underneath, and wind-blown sand is visible on the left. Part of the Curiosity rover itself is visible on the lower right. Just in the past few days, Curiosity scooped up some of the dark sand for a detailed analysis. After further exploration of the Bagnold Dunes, Curiosity is scheduled to continue its trek up the 5-kilometer tall Mount Sharp, the central peak in the large crater where the car-sized rover landed.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

A New Ninth Planet May Have Been Detected, Scientists Say


Sad that Pluto isn't a planet anymore? Don't worry, Caltech researchers may have discovered a new planet lurking in the outer reaches of our solar system.
They're calling it "Planet Nine" for now. The planet, if it exists, has a mass 10 times that of Earth and takes between 10,000 and 20,000 years to orbit the sun.
 Planet Nine has not actually been observed. Instead, evidence of the planet was discovered through mathematical modeling and computer simulations. Kind of like planet Neptune was discover."Although we were initially quite skeptical that this planet could exist, as we continued to investigate its orbit and what it would mean for the outer solar system, we become increasingly convinced that it is out there,"
 It all started in 2014 with the investigation of 13 objects in the Kuiper Belt — a region of the solar system beyond Neptune filled with comets and other icy bodies, as well as dwarf planets including Pluto.

Six of those objects had an orbit that suggested they were circling some distant object, which the researchers now believe is the ninth planet in our solar system. Although they believe they know the planet's orbit, they hope to actually locate it using a large telescope.
"This would be a real ninth planet," Brown said. "There have only been two true planets discovered since ancient times, and this would be a third. It's a pretty substantial chunk of our solar system that's still out there to be found, which is pretty exciting.
The new would be about the same size as Neptune.
 (How the planet might look like in the artist pic.)

Monday, January 11, 2016

Space stuff for the year 2016

Here's a brief rundown of the biggest spaceflight miletones to keep an eye out for in 2016, from a NASA probe's arrival at Jupiter to the highly anticipated maiden flight of SpaceX's huge new rocket.

Jan. 17: Launch of Jason-3 Earth-observing satellite

On Sunday (Jan. 17), the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Jason-3 satellite is scheduled to launch to Earth orbit atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
If all goes according to plan, the Jason-3 mission — a collaboration involving NOAA, the European climate-satellite organization EUMETSAT, the French space agency CNES and NASA — will make precise measurements of sea-level variations around the planet.

Jason-3's measurements will add to a valuable climate-change dataset that has been accruing for more than two decades, thanks to the observations of three other satellites known as TOPEX/Poseidon, Jason-1 and OSTM/Jason-2 (which launched in 1992, 2001 and 2008, respectively), NASA officials have said.
SpaceX will also try to land the Falcon 9's first stage on an uncrewed ship off the coast of California during Sunday's launch — part of the company's efforts to develop fully and rapidly reusable rockets, which advocates say could slash the cost of spaceflight dramatically.

SpaceX has already succeeded in bringing a Falcon 9 back to Earth. On Dec. 21, during a satellite launch for Orbcomm, the rocket's first stage came down for a soft landing at Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station — the first time this had ever been achieved during an orbital launch.
SpaceX doesn't plan to refly the Falcon 9 booster that touched down on Dec. 21, but company founder and CEO Elon Musk has said he hopes to do this with another landed rocket stage in the next year — so that's another milestone to watch for in 2016.


Feb. 7: SpaceX's return-to-flight cargo mission

SpaceX holds a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to fly at least 12 robotic resupply missions to the International Space Station (ISS) using the Falcon 9 and the company's uncrewed Dragon capsule. The first six such flights went perfectly, but the seventh ended just minutes after liftoff on June 28, 2015, when the Falcon 9 broke apart in the Florida skies.
 SpaceX will fly its first ISS cargo mission since the accident — which the company attributed to a faulty steel strut in the Falcon 9's upper stage — on Feb. 7, if current schedules hold. SpaceX has improved the rocket in the interim, modifying its stage-separation system and electronics, among other features, Musk has said. (The revamped Falcon 9 has already flown successfully, during the Dec. 21 launch for Orbcomm.)

March 14: Launch One for Europe's ExoMars mission

The European Space Agency (ESA) is scheduled to launch the first part of its ExoMars mission on March 14, blasting the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) on a seventh-month journey toward the Red Planet along with a technology-demonstrating lander.
The TGO will circle Mars and hunt for sources of methane, which here on Earth is primarily produced by living organisms (though the gas also can be generated by abiotic processes). The lander will take a variety of data during its descent through the Martian atmosphere and on the surface, but the main goal of the touchdown probe is to help pave the way for the life-hunting ExoMars rover, which will launch in 2018.
ESA is collaborating with the Russian Federal Space Agency, which is known as Roscosmos, on the ExoMars mission. This is because NASA was to be with them until congress refuse to adds money to NASA budget forcing  NASA to cancel it part of the program.

March 18: Astronauts launch toward International Space Station

NASA astronaut Jeffrey Williams and cosmonauts Aleksey Ovchinin and Oleg Skripochka are slated to launch toward the ISS on March 18. The trio will blast off in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Other ISS crew launches are scheduled to blast off from Baikonur on June 21, Sept. 23 and Nov. 16.


April: Maiden launch of SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket

At some point in April, SpaceX plans to launch its huge Falcon Heavy rocket for the first time, with the liftoff taking place from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The 224-foot-tall (68 meters) Falcon Heavy will be the most powerful booster in the world when it's operational, capable of lofting 53 metric tons to low Earth orbit, SpaceX representatives say.
Elon Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 primarily to help humanity colonize Mars. The Falcon Heavy is a big part of those plans.


Summer: End of NASA's Dawn mission?

NASA's Dawn spacecraft has been orbiting Ceres since March 2015, studying the heavily cratered dwarf planet's mysterious bright spots and other intriguing features. Last month, Dawn finished spiraling down to its final science orbit, and is now taking pictures and making measurements from an altitude of just 230 miles (375 km).
The $466 million mission is scheduled to end in June, when Dawn runs out of hydrazine fuel for its attitude-control thrusters. But mission team members have said they might be able to squeeze some more life out of Dawn, so it's unclear exactly when operations will end.
Dawn also orbited the protoplanet Vesta from July 2011 through September 2012; it's the first probe ever to circle two different bodies beyond the Earth-moon system. (Ceres and Vesta are the two biggest objects in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.)

July 4: Juno arrives at Jupiter

NASA's Juno spacecraft is scheduled to enter orbit around Jupiter on July 4, nearly five years after the probe blasted off.
The solar-powered Juno will map out Jupiter's magnetic and gravitational fields precisely, revealing key details about the giant planet's evolution and structure — including whether or not it has a solid core, NASA officials have said.


Sept. 3: NASA asteroid-sampling probe blasts off

Another NASA spaceflight milestone comes on Sept. 3, with the scheduled launch of the agency's Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer mission, or OSIRIS-REx for short.
The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will head toward a 1,650-foot-wide (500 m) asteroid named Bennu, and, if everything goes according to plan, will arrive at the potentially hazardous space rock in 2018. OSIRIS-REx will snag at least 2.1 ounces (60 grams) of Bennu material and bring the sample back to Earth in 2023.
The mission should help researchers learn more about the origin and evolution of the solar system, and it should also reveal clues about how to nudge potentially dangerous asteroids away from Earth, NASA officials have said.


Sept. 30: Historic Rosetta comet mission ends

The first mission ever to orbit and land on a comet will wrap up on Sept. 30, when ESA's Rosetta spacecraft spirals down onto the surface of the 2.5 mile-wide (4 km) Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.
The Rosetta mission launched in March 2004 and arrived at Comet 67P in August 2014. The Rosetta mothership then sent a lander called Philae down onto the icy object's surface in November of that year. The Rosetta orbiter will gather a variety data during its Sept. 30 slow-motion crash landing, adding to the detailed picture of 67P that mission scientists have already pieced together.