The big news this week is the discovery of the smallest exoplanet yet discovered, Gliese 581 e in the constellation Libra. The new planet is just twice the mass of earth, and orbits it’s red dwarf parent star in just under 4 days.
Gliese 581 is just 20 light years away and has 3 other known planets. Extra solar planet hunters are finding more and more multi planet systems around nearby dwarf stars. Gliese 876, for example, is another similar multi planet system, just 15 light years away in the constellation Aquarius. 55 Cancri is another similar system, except it is a yellow dwarf binary system. In spite of orbiting very different parent stars, these multi planet solar systems are structurally similar to our own solar system.
In other news, a recent article suggests our galaxy is probably dirty with sister earths, greatly increasing the likelihood of finding life on other planets.
MESSENGER has finally sent back new images from it’s 3rd flyby of Mercury.
China has announced specifications for a new super heavy lifter. The new launch platform will weigh 675 tons, and be capable of launching a 12 ton payload to GEO or 25 tons to LEO. ESA has launched 2 new space telescopes, new space telescopes, Herschel and Planck.
India’s Chandrayaan-1 has sent new images of the moon to probe the possible existence of water in permanently shadowed craters.
Spirit has been plagued by troubles. First, a glitch caused a loss of data from memory. To make maters worse, Spirit has become badly stuck in loose sand. Mission engineers are still working on a plan to try to get out of the difficult situation.
In other Mars news, the Russian Phobos-Grunt sample return mission to the moon Phobos will also include a sample of microbes from Antarctica to see if they can survive the trip.
The big news this week is the discovery that Theta 1 Orions C, a bright star in the Trapezium in Orion (that is a collection of bright stars in the Orion nebula, just below his belt) is actually a binary star.
What’s more exciting is the discovery was made by the VLTI in Chile, an optical interferometer with amazing resolving power. Light from the 4 telescopes can be combined in a way to increase the resolving power to be equivalent to a single telescope with a much larger mirror.
In other space imaging news, an images of exoplanet HR 8799b was found in 10 year old images collected by the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS) instrument on Hubble. It turns out the image had been collected many years ago, but the existence of the planet was not known at the time. HR 8799b was officially “discovered” at the Gemini North observatory in 2007. Later examination of the NICMOS images revealed the planet actually was imaged much earlier. In astronomy, it’s actually fairly common for some celestial object to be “discovered” and then later found in much earlier images. The star HR 8799 has 3 known planets, each with 7-10 time the mass of Jupiter orbiting far from their sun. HR 8799 is about 1.5 times the size of our sun. The inner planet has a nearly circular orbit, and although the shapes of the orbits of the other planets are not known, they most likely orbit in a roughly 1:2:4 resonance. Although the planets are much larger than the gas giants of our solar system, there are many striking similarities between HR 8799 and our own solar system, including the possibility of undiscovered terrestrial planets in the inner solar system.
Meanwhile, on Mars, Spirit set a new driving record (for 5 wheel driving) and Opportunity is using the RAT, MI, Mossbauer Spectrometer, and X-Ray spectrometer on a new target found on Meridiani. Some of these instruments have not been used in years. As usual, HortonHeardaWho has posted some terrific images on his flickr photo stream, it is definitely worth taking a look.
In other news, LISA, an spacecraft designed to detect gravity waves scheduled for launch in 2018, should also be able to detect and measure the mass of near earth asteroids as they pass by. They are predicting they will be able to measure 1 or 2 NEAs per year. Also, Paragon Space Development Corporation plans to grow plants on the moon
Although there wasn’t much happening in space last week, what there was was pretty cool. You may remember Asteroid 2008 TC3 which was detected by NASA shortly before it impacted Earth in Sudan last October.
Well, now they have recovered actual fragments of this asteroid.
Other than that, not much is going on. The Cassini program has created a virtual flyover of Titan, which is cool but just assembled form old data. And, New Horizons has detected Neptune’s moon Triton
NASA has assembled a panel of 4 experts to examine our national vision for space exploration, including the current plans to establish a permanent base on the moon, and then go on to Mars.
Opportunity has gotten the first glimpse of the rim of endeavor crater, still 12 km and just about 2 years away:
Also, NASA is hosting a contest to name the new Mars rover (ie MSL)
New Horizons is now 1/3 of the way to Pluto (by distance)
Most of the action is on Mars this week. The Phoenix science team have confirmed the presence of droplets of liquid water, most likely a brine, on the legs of the Phoenix lander. Also both rovers have now upgraded to version R9.3 of the flight software and are doing fine, and Opportunity has now logged more than 9 miles of driving. And, finally, HiRISE has acquired some spectacular images of Deimos.
The Dawn spacecraft has successfully completed a gravitational boost maneuver on its way to the asteroids Vesta and Ceres. Also, a minor bug caused the spacecraft to enter safemode, at least they call it a “minor” bug. Actually, if it had been only a little worse it would have ended the mission, and it was a pretty stupid bug too. But, alls well that ends well.
NASA is promoting a tournament to nominate the greatest NASA mission of all time. My vote will be for the Mars rovers, of course.
China has announced plans to land on the moon by 2013, and Obama has declared his support for a a return to the moon with a manned mission.
Images from MRO’s HiRISE imaging system have provided more clues of recent water activity in some gullies on mars.
Kepler has launched! Hooray! It’s just a matter of months (well maybe years) until we start finding M class planets around other stars.
And, speaking of M class planets, astronomers have discovered a binary black hole system. Great place to work on your tan. Some people prefer to tan with good old UV, but I like x-rays or even the occasional soft gamma ray when you can get’em.
There is also a fascinating new theory that, not only may there be life on the asteroid Ceres, but life may even have evolved on Ceres first and been transferred to the earth (during the late heavy bombardment)
Deep Space Report 2.3
I’m putting this first because this is the coolest news. COROT has discovered the smallest exoplanet yet, COROT-Exo-7b. The planet is just 2x earth’s diameter, orbiting very close to a sun like star once every 20 hours. The surface temperature is predicted to reach 1000-1500 C.
Also, the Kepler mission, which is designed to search for earth like planets around other stars, is more or less ready for launch on 3/6/09
Near Earth Space
You’ve probably already heard about the spectacular collision of two satellites last week.
But you might not have heard about the 35 m asteroid 2009 DD45 which passed within 72,000 km of the earth on 3/2/09. That's less than twice the distance of a geosynchronous communication satellite.
And finally, Japan's Hayabusa spacecraft, an asteroid sample return mission, has managed to restart engines after 16 months. It is now expected to return to earth with a sample of the surface of asteroid Itokawa some time in 2010, after traveling 4.5 billion kilometers.
A quick summary of the news form our nearest neighbor:
Spirit has recovered recovered from it’s fault . Most likely explanation of earlier fault was a cosmic ray hit. Also, it seems another cleaning event has occurred, increasing total output of the solar panels by 15%. However, this increases the discretionary power budget from from 30 to 60 watt hours per day. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has entered safe mode. And, Phoneix data finds possibility of thin films of liquid water on Mars. In similar environments on earth, in particular the dry valleys in Antarctica, microorganisms survive using these thin films of water, sometimes only nanometers thick. The possibility of life on Mars surviving under these conditions is tantalizing.
Deep space Report 2.2
Last week I briefly mentioned the methane burp on Mars. This has reopened a general discussion of the implication of the presence of methane on Mars. This is a really big deal, because there are only 2 possible sources of methane on Mars, volcanoes or microbes. Both are very exciting possibilities, but it turns out that many Mars experts have concluded that a biological source seems to explain the data better. That means life on Mars people. This is a really big deal. There was an interesting discussion last week on Science Friday, available in a podcast.
Also, Spirit has a scary glitch. It failed to respond to commands to move, and then didn’t store any data in non volatile memory, so the whole day was lost. The MER team isn’t panicking yet. This may just be a one off failure, or it could be the beginning of the end for the aging spacecraft.
Cassini captured new images of a region of lakes near the south pole on Titan. By comparing these images to earlier images, they have found seasonal changes, which include very strong evidence for lakes and cloud formations.
The Planetary Society has sent their new “Beyond the Moon” roadmap for future plans to explore space to congress. The plan focuses mostly on government funded exploration, with Mars as the eventual goal. Of course the long term goal is to establish some kind of permanent human presence in space, but suffers from the perennial problem of lack of justification. I think if we really want to go into space, we need to let private industry lead the way. The justification, as always, is profit. And there are vast riches out there to be won, we just need to enable private industry to go get it and then get out of the way. Companies like Armadillo Aerospace and Virgin Galactic are already making a good start.
Also, new observations of a wild exoplanet, HD 80606b, that passes within .03 AU of it’s host star every 111 days have recorded a planet wide temperature increase of over a thousand degrees in just 6 hours.
In the spirit of the new year, I have compiled a list of the 10 coolest topics covered last year in the Deep Space Report
- 3 planets orbiting other stars were imaged, Fomalhaut, HR8799, and beta pictoris, in that order.
- The discovery of an ancient shoreline provided proof that Mars once had an ocean of liquid water in the northern hemisphere.
- Phoenix detected actual snow falling from the sky on Mars.
- Armadillo Aerospace wins Lunar Lander Challenge level 1, and also announces partnerships with the Rocket Racing League to provide rocket motors for their racers, and also work on a joint venture to provide commercial space tourism flights.
- India successfully sends Chandrayaan-1 to the moon.
- China send's it's first moon probe too, Chang'e-1
- Catalina Sky Survey program detected a meteorite before impact.
- A spectacular fireball meteorite was seen over Alberta, Canada.
- Cassinni makes 2 flybys of Encleadus, the first passing within just 16 miles of the tiny moon.
- NASA tests out several new lunar rover designs, including ATHLETE and PILOT
I apologize for the missing reports over the holidays, but not much has been happening anyway
The US DoD has proposed the idea of using Atlas and Delta rockets as a platform for launching manned missions to the moon. Both rockets have been in service for decades and have a proven flight record, but neither is "man rated". They have never been used to launch astronauts that is. however, the safety record has been proven by hundreds of successful launches, and they are probably as safe as or safer than the space shuttle. the big advantage would be cost. With such a long program history, NASA could save as much as $3.4 billion over the proposed Ares program.
Also, a NASA instrument on Chandrayaan-1 has detected the signature of iron bearing minerals on the moon. This is mildly exciting. lunar materials containing aluminum and titanium are already known, this discovery may add iron as a potential material available from resources on the moon.
Lets give it up for the little rovers that could as they celebrate their 5th anniversary on Mars. As I'm sure everyone remembers like it was just yesterday, Spirit landed on 1/3/04, and Opportunity landed 1/24/04. Those little robots have surely exceeded all expectations of success by a wider margin than any other program in NASA history. Of course there is Voyager, still going, but voyager was DESIGNED to last decades, not mere months. The MER program is a shining example of success that should be used as a model for future NASA programs.
University of Arizona Professor Richard Greenberg has published a new book on his thin ice theory for Europa, and the implications this has for the possibility of life there. The more conventional theory is that, if Europa has an ocean at all, it is covered by a thick mantle of ice, tens of kilometers thick. Greenberg's thin ice theory, which is supported by his analysis of surface features on the moon, is the ice is no more than a few kilometers thick. This would allow more flexing and cracks which reach the surface, allowing material to be exchange more easily between the surface and the deep ocean. The theory also supports periodic melt troughs, where the liquid ocean would be exposed directly to the surface.
According to Dr. Rosaly Lopes, new data collected from Titan supports the theory that the moon may have active cryovolcanoes.
Human Space Flight
MIT has released a comprehensive independent review of NASA's future plans for manned space exploration. MIT's review actually calls for a much more aggressive program of exploration, with more international cooperation, clearer stated goals, and less pressure on NASA to do more with less.
Deep Space Report 1.12
China's Chang'e-1 space probe has adjusted its orbit to just 200 km above the surface of the moon.
After last week's discussion of the possibility of long term climate cycles, and maybe even life on Mars, this week researchers at Cal Tech published a new study indicating that Mars' axial tilt could produce climate cycles on the order of 100,000 years in length, that's just under 50,000 mars years, by the way. Glad to see great minds think alike.
Bulgarian astronomers have discovered a new asteroid this week, 2008 WN96. The asteroid is estimated to be 2 km diameter, which is pretty large for an asteroid discovered so recently, with an orbital period of 3.2 years.
In a new report, University of Washington oceanographer Robert Tyler has calculated the heat required to maintain a liquid ocean on Europa could come from waves generated from the ocean itself. An axial tilt of less than one degree would be sufficient to produce enough heat to keep the ocean liquid.
CO2 has been discovered for the first time in the atmosphere of an exoplanet, HD 189733b, 63 light years away.
Deep Space Report 1.11
The top news this week is the golf ball astronaut Alan Shepard launched from the moon in 1971 has been located more than 200 million miles away, on Meridiani Planum
Actually, this appears to be close to the largest, if not the largest example of a Martian "blueberry", or hematite spherule. They have been found in various sizes, usually 5 mm or less in diameter. But some extraordinarily specimens have been found in various pancam images, this one appears to be more or less the size of a golf ball.
MSL delayed 2 years
NASA has finally admitted defeat in getting MSL off the ground on time, the only alternative is to slip the schedule nearly 2 years to the next launch opportunity. That sucks, and it's going to add $400 million to the overall cost, just for the schedule slip.
Possibility of Life on Mars?
In a recent experiment, scientists have determined that certain organisms can survive in a sporified form for an indefinite period of time on Mars, provided they are buried under the surface by as little as 4 cm. In this form, life could survive for tens of thousands of years through Mars' climactic cycles, perhaps remaining dormant until the planet warms slightly, just enough to support thin films of liquid water for even a few years, and then go dormant again.
The experiment exposed earth bacteria to accelerated martian conditions, including both the daily temperature fluctuations, near vaccum, and intense UV radiation. The martian soil simulant was sterilized down to a depth of 4cm, but sporified bacteria below 4cm were preserved. Some bacteria have been shown to survive for millions of years trapped inside salt crystals on earth. Sporified martian bacteria could survive just as long, waiting for climatic changes to bring water and life back to the long dormant planet. On much shorter timescales, sporified bacteria may remain dormant and become active seasonally. For example, some locations on Mars, such as areas of the Hellas basin, may support liquid surface water for a few days per year. Bacteria could survive under these conditions, remaining dormant in the soil for the rest of the year. Life in this form could follow annual cycles, not unlike desert life in places like Death Valley on earth.
HiRISE releases new high res 3-D images
More than 300 new high resolution stereo anaglyphs have been published on the HiRISE web site. These are the highest resolution stereo images of Mars ever released, and among the highest resolution images period. You need those goofy red blue glasses to see them properly, but the effect is impressive. They also have the stereo pairs as individual images. I have found a simple blink animation, alternating the left and right images at about a 500 ms time interval, works very well, better than 3-D glasses, and doesn't require the glasses. It takes a little time to do that, I'll see if I have time to publish some of the images in that format.
Deep space Report 1.10
Hong Kong Polytechnic University and the Russian Space Agency have announced plans to develop a joint mission to Mars. The mission plans to land a spacecraft on Phobos and sample the surface material directly. This may confirm the presence of water ice on Phobos.
A sophisticated computer simulation has predicted that Jupiter may have solid core of water ice and other rocky materials. NASA and ESA have also announced plans to work on a joint mission to Jupiter's moons Europa and Ganymede, the Europa-Jupiter System Mission (EJSM).
Measurements of Encleadus' mysterious plumes have shown the material is moving at 1360 mph. It is difficult to imagine how to achieve this velocity without liquid water near the surface of the tiny moon.
Alberta Meteorite Update
The spectacular fireball seen last week over Alberta, Canada has now been estimated to have been an approximately 10 ton asteroid which entered the atmosphere at approximately 14 km/s. This is relatively slow, compared to an average velocity of around 20 km/s. Several security cameras recorded the event. Dr. Peter Brown of the University of Western Ontario hopes to find as many video recordings as possible, as this will help to determine the original orbit of the asteroid. Although no fragments of the actual meteorite have yet been recovered, it is likely that some will be found. Only 9 other meteorites have been associated with a known orbit prior to impact. With any luck this will be the tenth.
Noting that meteorites have substantial commercial value, under Canadian law, meteorites are the property of the landowner of the property on which they are found.
Deep Space Report 1.09
Britain is now planning it's own moon mission, MoonLITE, focusing on studying moon quakes.
Water on Mars
There were two exciting discoveries this week related to water on mars. First, they have identified what seems to be an ancient shoreline, indicating an ocean once existed that would have been as large as the Mediterranean, and possibly even larger.
The other, perhaps more exciting, discovery is buried glacial ice in Hellas basin, between 35 and 60 degrees latitude. The ice is buried by less than a meter of rock and debris, which acts as an insulating blanket, otherwise the ice would have sublimated long ago. The ice containing deposits, which appear as gently sloping aprons at the bases of taller features, have puzzled NASA scientists since they were first observed in the early 70s. Conclusive evidence from the ground penetrating radar from MRO show these aprons are in fact made of ice.
Opportunity Continues on to Endeavour
Hortonheardawho has posted some awesome new color panoramas from Oppy's journey to Endeavour. They've set several new daily records, But what's amazing is the consistent distance they are putting on.
JPL has also published an updated an updated traverse map from sol 1713. Be sure to check it out at full res. This is a terrific example or MRO's MOC capabilities. Image resolution could easily pick out even smaller boulders or ejecta debris, although I haven't spotted any. I think the JPL page links to the source image from MRO.
MSL site list narrowed
NASA has narrowed down the list of candidates for the MSL landing site to 4:
- Holden Crater - another crater, similar to Gusev Crater, with and outflow channel, containing alluvial fans, flood deposits, possible lake beds and clay-rich deposits.
- Mawrth Vallis - contains exposed layers containing at least two types of clay.
The Dawn spacecraft has shut down its ion motor and will cruise unpowered until February next year, when it will have an encounter with Mars. Dawn is on schedule for an encounter with Vesta in 2011 and Ceres in 2015.
French astronomers have used the ESO' Very Large Telescope to image yet another extra solar planet, beta pictoris. Beta Pictoris is a very young star, about 12 million years old, about 70 light years away. The planet has approximately 8 times the mass of Jupiter and orbits at the distance Saturn orbits our sun. I think this is perhaps the most earth like solar system yet imaged.
A recent study has detected cosmic rays which appear to be originating from a nearby source, perhaps 300 light years away or less. The high energy electrons are encountering the earth at such high velocity that they could not have traveled much further than that without losing more velocity. However, the detector is not capable of accurately determining what direction the electrons are coming from, so we really have no idea where the source is, just that it must be relatively nearby.
China as a space threat
The US-China Economic and Security Review Commission issued a report to congress which, among other things, warns of China's space program as a potential military threat. What does this have to do with deep space? Well, the biggest space program in US history, Apollo, was a military program. It was a response to a perceived threat by the USSR, and a demonstration of the US space capability. In particular it was a demonstration of the US ICBM capability. What, Saturn V was just a giant ICBM? Yes it was, why do you think NASA built a disposable launch vehicle? You don't reuse ICBMs. And, China has stated that there long term goal is to establish a permanent base on the moon. Now, if this is seen as a potential military threat, we must follow suit and build our own moon base with equal or greater capability. Of course we also have plans for a permanent moon base, but the plans of NASA can shift from year to year. With out a "guns and butter" justification for the expense of such a program, it would be likely to lose support eventually, especially when the enormous cost of a moon base turns into a line item on this year's congressional budget talks. Whether or not there is a real military threat isn't really the point. The point is there is a congressional report which at least mentions this as a possibility, and that should be all the support we need.
Deep Space Report 1.8
Check out this interactive map of nearby stars:
Chandrayaan-1 has begun remote sensing of the moon, and has also landed a remote probe, although apparently the probe had a "hard landing" that "terminated it's functioning." But, let's focus on the success, they DID land the probe on the moon!
NASA has also tested some more lunar rover designs, and more importantly two separate ISRU methods to extract oxygen from lunar material. This is a really big deal, not only can lunar oxygen be used to breath, it also makes up the bulk of most rocket propellants. Future missions to the moon might use lunar oxygen as propellant for a return trip.
Spirit has been caught in a dust storm which has drastically reduced the amount of solar power generated by its solar panels. NASA has commanded the rover to take some severe power saving measures, including shutting down the heater to the thermal imager. The thermal imager is susceptible to cold, so shutting down the heater may cause permanent damage to the imager. As of last Friday, Spirit was low on power but still communicating with NASA.
ESA's Ulysses spacecraft is about to end it's 14 year mission to study the sun. Its RTG power generator is beginning to wane, and soon it will lose the ability to operate. Launched in 1990, Ulysses first traveled to Jupiter and used a gravitational assist to launch into an orbit which took it over the poles of the sun. It has orbited the sun 3 times since then, it was originally designed for a 5 year mission.
Amazing images of 2 extrasolar planetary systems were published last week. A Jupiter size planet orbiting the star Fomalhaut, 25 light years away,
and an amazing 3 planet system around HR8799, some 140 light years away.
Deep space Report 1.7
NASA tests new rover designs
NASA tested a bunch of new lunar rover designs last week in Black Point, Arizona, including ATHLETE, a 6 leg rover design, and the Small Pressurized Rover Concept vehicle. This video sort of rambles a bit but watch the whole thing, there are so many rovers being tested at times it looks like a scene from Star Wars.
Chandrayaan-1 has sent back pictures and also adjusted it's orbit for the 4th time. The orbit now takes the spacecraft 267,000 km from the earth. The next maneuver should take the spacecraft all the way to the moon.
Google Lunar X-Prize
In a bizarre twist, NASA has announced it will collaberate with Odyssey Moon Ventures LLC to compete for the Google Lunar X Prize.
Shakleton Crater may be xenobiotic deep freeze
In an interesting article
Joop Houtkooper presented an interesting paper at Europlanet's latest Planetary Science Congress last week. He presented the idea that permanently shadowed parts of Shackleton Crater near the moon's south pole should in theory act as an interplanetary deep freeze. In particular, ancient meteor impacts on earth and even mars could have expelled debris into interplanetary space. Some of this debris almost certainly would have been collected on preserved deep inside Shackleton Crater. In fact, over the billions of years of history of life on earth, it is very likely that, at the very least, some samples of very early life on earth would have been preserved on the moon in this way. It is interesting to note that the same thing is true for Mars. If at any point in the past microbial life existed on Mars, those microbes would also have been expelled and transported to the moon in the same way. Although Mars is obviously much further way from the moon, it is also nearer the main asteroid belt and would have experienced more frequent large impacts.
What is unique about the moon is it is not geologically active. We do not have samples on the surface of the earth which would preserve evidence of life on earth from the time when we believe the origin of life occurred, because the earth is a very active place. that geologic record has been erased billions of years ago. However, this record may still be preserved hidden in the shadows of Shackleton Crater.
Moving at the speed of interplanetary science, the MESSENGER team has finally released some amazing new images and science results from the recent flyby. Among other things, they have discovered a mysterious blue material on the surface of Mercury.
Once again, MER-B Opportunity is roving across the seemingly endless sands of Meridiani, on its way to Endeavor Crater (image credit hortonheardawho)
On a sadder note, the sun is setting on the Phoenix lander. It has already entered safe mode at least once due to low power, and NASA has begun the shutting down systems to try to squeeze the last remaining watts out of the spacecraft.
Deep space Report 1.5
There is not much to report form Luna and beyond this week. The big news was really Chandayaan-1. Other than that, the ESA announced they are delaying ExoMars again, Iowa State Research Center sponsored a symposium for asteroid deflection, and there was some interesting news on using a form of waterless concrete (made largely from lunar regolith) for construction on the moon. And, of course, Armadillo Aerospace won the LLC level 1.
There was also a NY times article on the possibility of ice on the moon. In a new study published in Science, infrared images of permanently shaded areas inside Shakleton crater taken by the Japanese SELENE spacecraft were analyzed. Although the temperature of these areas were found to be cold enough for water ice to be stable, infrared spectra of surface material in these areas did not include any ice. However, this does not preclude subsurface ice, even if it is only covered by a few centimeters of dust. In fact, if ice were present, one would expect to find at least a thin covering of moon dust, the moon being an extraordinarily dusty place. So, although ice was not detected directly, I would say the confirmation of the temperature being cold enough for ice to be stable is more of a positive sign than the lack of direct evidence for ice on the surface, which would not be expected anyway.
Here are some gratuitous video links
After it's successful encounter with Mercury a couple of weeks ago, Messenger has increased it's velocity relative to the sun to 63 km/s. This is the second fastest NASA spacecraft in history, the fastest being Helios 2 back in the 70s.
The IBEX spacecraft was launched on a Pegasus rocket last week. Pegasus is an aircraft launched rocket. IBEX's mission is to observe the boundary of our sun's magnetosphere. IBEX will use it's own solid rocket boosters to achieve a 100,000 mile earth orbit before beginning the science phase of it's mission.
Also, 9 teams (including Armadillo Aerospace, see RRL article last week) will compete in Northrup Grumman $2 million Lunar Lander Challenge this week. Here is a video from last year:
New observations by ESA's Mars Express spacecraft have been used to more accurately measure the mass and density of Phobos. With a revised density of 1.85 g/cc, which is significantly lower than the density or Martian rock at 2.7-3.3 g/cc, the conclusion is Phobos is most likely a rubble pile. It is also likely that the mass of Phobos contains significant quantities of water ice, which of course has a density of 1 g/cc. Of course, it would be nice to obtain a sample of Phobos, and a Russian mission planned to launch next year may do exactly that. However, with Russia's less than spectacular success record with missions to Mars, I would not bet on seeing those samples return to earth any time soon.
Opportunity is continuing on it's journey to Endeavour Crater, taking one last lap around Victoria first. Also, a couple of weeks ago, on sol 1671, Oppy acquired this panorama (assembled by Hortonheardawho)
After the spectacular encounter with Enceladus last week, Cassini has still not posted any details or results from the encounter. They did post some raw images from 5000km+, but I was hoping for some extreme closeups. So far the hihgest res images are these images from August, at 545 km:
Now that is darn good, you can practically see the polar bears and leopard seals lounging on the ice, but if they got better images in the most recent encounter I'd love to see them.
A new comet was discovered last week, w00t!
Deep Space Report 1.3
Near Earth Space
For the very first time, our extensive near earth object tracking program has detected an impactor before it hit the earth. Well, not long before it hit the earth, and it wasn't much of an impactor. Asteroid 2008 TC3, estimated to measure between 3 and 15 feet in diameter, burned up in the atmosphere over Sudan on 10/7 at 2:46am GMT. The really cool part is the asteroid actually was detected prior to impact, and being a relatively small chunk of rock, this was quite a feat!
Image Credit: Richard Kowalski and Ed Beshore, Catalina Sky Survey
The asteroid was initially discovered by the Catalina Sky Survey in Tucson Arizona. The final orbit shows 2008 TC3 was both a Mars crosser and also (obviously) and earth crosser.
But, can anyone say invasion from Mars? Maybe, just as a precaution, we should send a team of international investigators to the impact location to check things out. Anyone exhibiting curious behavior or extra limbs should be detained ;-0
But seriously, JPL's Near Earth Object Program posted some nice data on this event:
On 10/6 Messenger successfully completed the second flyby of Mercury this year. The spacecraft passed within 125 miles of the planet.
MSL was nearly cut this week, but then it wasn't. It's gone over budget of course. they've already spent $1.5 billion on the program. I think the real issue is if they do not get enough funding to keep the program on schedule, it will have to slip to the next launch opportunity for Mars, which come about 18 months apart. That would add even more cost which would suck even worse. The project is expected to run at least 30% over budget as is. Status quo really.
Phoenix is desperately trying to get in some more science before the mission ends from lack of sunlight. I have to say that compared to MER, Phoenix hasn't delivered much.
MER continues to be the poster child for the Energizer Bunny on Mars. If they keep going they may have to pick up Energizer as a sponsor because NASA is going to get tired of funding the mission that refused to die.
10/9 was a busy busy day for Cassini. The big news was a very close flyby of Enceladus, at a distance of less than 16 miles. But along the way they also passed through the rings and had encounters with Telesto and Janus at 42,000 and 56,000 miles respectively. The encounter was a success. Apparently they have sent back data from the encounter, but none of the really close up images have been posted yet. In addition to acquiring phenomenally high res images of the vents near the south pole, Cassini flew directly through the plumes and sampled them.
Almost forgot, 10/15 is going to be the 1000 day aniversary for New Horizons mission to Pluto. Everyone put on a party hat and sing happy birthday new horizons or something like that
Deep space Report 1.2
All the news that's fit to print from Luna and beyond!
Carnegie Mellon University has decided to pursue the $20 million Google Lunar X Prize. http://www.space.com/spacenews/071001_businessmonday_lunarprize.html
The UK's Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) has developed a sophisticated x-ray camera for lunar observation. The camera is scheduled to be launched 10/22/08 on the Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft - India's first mission to the Moon.
MESSENGER's second pass by Mercury, a gravitational boost maneuver, is scheduled for 1/14/09. MESSENGER sill pass within 125 miles of the surface, snapping pictures as it goes. Although they are planning to eventually orbit Mercury, the planned trajectory uses many gravitational boost maneuvers to save fuel. They should achieve capture by Mercury in March 2011
The Phoenix science team held a press conference last Monday. They have discovered calcium carbonate and sheet silicates. These two minerals don't usually form without the presence of liquid water. Calcium carbonate was detected by both TEGA and MECA at 7% or more. In general, evidence of phyllosilicate clays are abundant. MECA lead scientist Michael Hecht commented, "We are seeing smooth-surfaced, platy particles with the atomic-force microscope, not inconsistent with the appearance of clay particles." Extreme dryness of soil might be related to perchlorate prevalence. So far the science team has not detected organics.
Perhaps more exciting, a laser instrument designed to measure the atmosphere has detected actual snow falling on Mars. The snow was detected high in the atmosphere. Similar to dry deserts on earth, This was a "ghost" snow since it evaporated before it reached the ground.
Other Mars news
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has discovered hundreds of small fractures on the surface of Mars which may have served to direct the flow of water through Martian sandstone billions of years ago.
A new study based on information collected by the ESA's Mars Express Planetary Fourier Spectrometer has come up with an explanation for why Mars' ice caps are slightly offset. Detailed, accurate measurements of wind flow patterns have revealed that the Hellas Basin reroute high altitude winds and force weather systems towards the south pole. This creates a strong low-pressure system in the western hemisphere of Mars, which is responsible for the asymmetry of the southern polar cap.
Researchers at the DLR Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin have analyzed images of the Xanthe Terra region of Mars. "For years scientists have been suspecting that the current appearance of the landscape has, in part, been shaped by rivers that cut into the surface," comments Ernst Hauber of the German Aerospace Center. They have concluded that fan shaped sedimentary deposits are the result of flowing and standing water in Mars' ancient past.
The Dawn mission to Ceres and other minor planets has reached it's first anniversary. Using an advanced ion propulsion system, Dawn has used 67 kg of propellant to produce 1.68 km/s delta V. It is difficult to put this amount of thrust in perspective, but it is a huge improvement over less efficient chemical rockets, and is only the beginning of Dawn's mission.
F. Marchis, PI, at the SETI Institute and at UC-Berkeley, and P. Descamps from Paris Observatory announced recently the discovery of two moons around the M-type asteroid 216 Kleopatra, the so called "dog bone" asteroid.
The Kepler planet hunting telescope mission has managed to cut costs and avoid cancellation. The nearly 1 meter Schmidt telescope was designed to scan a large field of stars, searching for earth size planets in potential habitable orbits. The new plan would launch the mission in 2009.
ESA's Stone-6 artificial meteorite tests if a Martian meteorite could transport living organisms to Earth.
Deep Space Report 1.1
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Deep Space Report Vol. 1 Issue 1
This is the first installment of a weekly summary of what's happening in solar system exploration. My goal is to include all the news that's fit to print from the moon and beyond.
Mars has been a very busy place recently.
MER Opportunity is leaving Victoria crater and heading for an even larger crater, Endeavor, 12 km away. This is a very ambitious goal, one which would never have been dreamed of at the begriming of the mission, but the rovers have proven to be two tough little robotic explorers. Steve Squyres, Principal Investigator on the MER team, says with the new driving software JPL uploaded he believes Opportunity can cover up to 100 meters per day easily. On the way to the massive 20 km diameter crater, they hope to find some impact debris which may have been excavated from deep beneath the surface. Studying the ejecta could give them a window into Mars' ancient past.
On the way, Opportunity will be guided by ground imagery from HiRISE, the high resolution imager on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. HiRISE can image features as small as 50 cm across. This will allow the MER team to possible identify some impact debris along the way, and navigate the rover to study the debris. By the way, I posted a thread on the Mars Rover Blog forum 4 years ago, suggesting we visit endeavor crater, although at the time I did not realize this was a crater. It's so huge I saw the crater rim in some MOC images and thought it looked like an enormous canyon.
Meanwhile, the end is fast approaching the the Phoenix lander in the Martian arctic. Winter will bring a thick layer of water and CO2 ice which will bury the lander, but long before then the dwindling amount of sunlight will cease to provide enough energy to continue with science operations. This means the Phoenix team is in a race against time to collect one more sample of ice. According to Peter Smith, Principal Investigator on the Phoenix science team, soil samples collected by Phoenix do not behave like any of the simulants they worked with prior to launch. The soil particles seem to be small enough to fit through the sample screen, but they still get stuck. The particles appear to be sticking to the screen which was designed to prevent larger particles from entering the sample and clogging the mechanism. Obviously this has been very frustrating for the science and engineering teams. They have already obtained one small sample of ice, but they want to get one more sample of a high concentration ice deposit before the mission ends.
Cassini is sponsoring a scientist for the day competition for high school students. Sounds like fun!
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