News from Mars: MAVEN Orbiter Arrives!

maven_tv_backdropIn November 2013, NASA launched the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) space probe from Cape Canaveral. Described as a “time machine” for Mars, the orbiter would spend the next ten months traversing space, assuming an orbit around the Red Planet, and look for an answer as to how Mars went from being a planet with an atmosphere and water to the dried out husk that we know today.

And this evening, after trekking some 711 million kilometers (442 million-mile) across our Solar System, MAVEN will have arrived in orbit around Mars and will begin its year-long mission to study the planet’s upper atmosphere. The arrival will be broadcast live, courtesy of NASA TV and Space.com. The live webcast will run from 9:30 p.m. to 10:45 p.m. EDT (0130 to 0245 GMT), and if all goes well, MAVEN will enter orbit around Mars at 9:50 p.m. EDT (0250 GMT).

maven_launchAs David Mitchell, NASA’s MAVEN project manager at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said in a statement:

So far, so good with the performance of the spacecraft and payloads on the cruise to Mars. The team, the flight system, and all ground assets are ready for Mars orbit insertion.

Though plans to study Mars’ atmosphere in detail have been in the works for years, the MAVEN program received a big push from the ongoing efforts from the Curiosity rover. During its ongoing mission to study the surface of Mars, Curiosity was able to confirm that Mars had extensive surface water billions of years ago. This revelation came very early in the mission, and indicated some rather interesting things about Mars’ past.

Mars-snow-header-640x353For instance, although Mars is now too cold for flowing water today, it might have had a thicker atmosphere in the past that warmed its surface and allowed the liquid to remain stable on the surface. And while scientists have a pretty good idea how it was lost (i.e. too far our Sun, too low a gravity field), the rate of loss and when it disappeared are just some of the questions that MAVEN will attempt to answer.

Much of what scientists know about Mars’ upper atmosphere comes from just a few minutes’ worth of data from the two Viking landers that took measurements as they made their way to the Martian surface in the 1970s. This time around, NASA will be able to collect data for an entire year, gathering far more data than either the Viking landers or any other spacecraft has since had the opportunity to do.

maven_atmo1As Bruce Jakosky, the mission’s principal investigator at the University of Colorado, Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, explained it:

The MAVEN science mission focuses on answering questions about where did the water that was present on early Mars go, about where did the carbon dioxide go. These are important questions for understanding the history of Mars, its climate, and its potential to support at least microbial life.

NASA scientists understand that Mars’ upper atmosphere acts as an escape zone for molecules floating dozens of miles from the planet’s surface. They theorize that as the solar wind hits the atmosphere, the radiation strips away the lighter molecules and flings them into space forever. To test this hypothesis, MAVEN will be examining the state of Mars’ upper atmosphere, and ionosphere to determine its interactions with the solar wind.

maven_atmosphereIn so doing, NASA hopes to determine what the current rates of escape are for neutral gases and ions, and thus get a better picture of how long it took for the atmosphere to degrade and when it began degrading. The upper atmosphere of Mars likely changes as the sun’s activity increases and decreases, which is why MAVEN investigators hope to run the mission for longer than a year.

MAVEN will began making science measurements around Nov. 8, due to it taking a short break from its commissioning phase to watch Comet Siding Spring pass close by on Oct. 19. The $671 million MAVEN spacecraft is one of two missions that launched toward Mars last November and which are making their arrival this month. The other probe is India’s Mars Orbiter Mission, which launched just before MAVEN and will arrive at the Red Planet this Wednesday (Sept. 24).

It is an exciting time for space exploration, and the coming years are sure to be characterized by an escalating and accelerating rate of learning. Be sure to head on over to Space.com to watch the arrival broadcast live. And be sure to check out the following videos – the Mars Arrival trailer; NASA Goddard Center’s “Targeting Mars” video; and the NASA MAVEN PSA, hosted by LeVar Burton:

MAVEN Mars Arrival Trailer:


Targeting Mars:


LeVar Burton Shares MAVEN’s Story:


Sources:
space.com, (2), nasa.gov

Remembering the Shuttle Challenger Disaster

Challenger_explosionToday marks the 28th anniversary of the Shuttle Challenger Disaster, an incident which has lived on in the memories of people around the world and to many, signaled the end of an era. The shuttle’s explosion, which took place at 11:39:13 am EST on January 28th, 1986, occurred just 73 seconds into flight after it took off from Cape Canaveral on the Florida coast.

According to investigators, the accident occurred when the O-ring seal in the shuttle’s solid rocket booster failed during liftoff, which allowed pressurized hot gas from within the solid rocket motor to reach the outside. This malfunction led to the separation of the right-hand solid rocket booster’s aft attachment and the structural failure of the external tank.

Challenger_flight_51-l_crewThe fallen crew members included NASA astronauts Greg Jarvis, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Michael J. Smith and Dick Scobee, as well as school teacher Christa McAuliffe. It was because of McAuliffe’s presence on the shuttle –  as the first member of the Teacher in Space Project – that roughly 17 percent of Americans were tuned to their TVs during the time of the accident and witnessed the tragedy.

The disaster resulted in a 32-month hiatus in the shuttle program and the formation of the Rogers Commission, a presidential commission charged with investigating the accident. It revealed, amongst other things, that NASA’s organizational culture was in part responsible for the disaster. In short, NASA managers had known that the O-Rings in the Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) design contained a fatal flaw, one which was overlooked.

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????The investigation also revealed that engineers at Morton Thiokol, the manufacturer of the rocket boosters, had warned them prior to the launch of the flaw. One such engineer was Roger Boisjoly, who realized that a shuttle launch in the cold weather that Florida was experiencing would pose a grave danger. As he had indicated, the rockets weren’t designed to launch safely in weather below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

NASA officials at the time rejected Boisjoly’s warning, saying that he was acting on a gut feeling rather than science. Boisjoly told The Times in an interview in 2003 that NASA tried to blacklist him from the industry, and  went so far as to argue that some NASA officials should be indicted for manslaughter charges, and the agency should be abolished.

Challenger_learning_centerThere are many memorials to the fallen crew, but one of the most cited in education is the 40 Challenger Learning Centers that are located in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom and South Korea. The network was founded by June Scobee Rogers (the widow of commander Scobee) and includes participation from other Challenger family members.

According to their website, their goal is to:

[G]ive students the chance to become astronauts and engineers and solve real-world problems as they share the thrill of discovery on missions through the Solar System.

As a result of the disaster, the Air Force decided to cancel its plans to use the Shuttle for classified military satellite launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, deciding to use the Titan IV instead. Media coverage of the accident was also extensive, with one study indicating that 85 percent of Americans had heard the news within an hour of the accident.

astronaut_memorial_foundationChallenger’s anniversary comes in a week that includes other tragic anniversaries, including the Apollo 1 pad fire that occurred on Jan. 27th, 1967 and claimed the lives of three astronauts’ lives; the Columbia shuttle breakup that happened on Feb. 1st, 2003 and killed seven. Many other astronauts have died in training accidents, and their names are listed at the Astronaut Memorial Foundation.

The disaster has also been used as a case study in many discussions of engineering safety and workplace ethics. And it serves as a constant reminder of the bravery of those who choose to go into space for the sake of advancing science and our understanding of the cosmos. It’s also a reminder that the only safeguard against tragic accidents is eternal vigilance!

Let us all hope and pray no such incidents happen as we embark on a renewed age of space exploration and discovery!

News from Mars: Spirit Rover’s Tenth Anniversary

opportunityTwo days ago, another major milestone passed for one of NASA’s famed rovers. But this time around, it wasn’t the spotlight-hogging Curiosity or the die-hard Opportunity rover that was the subject of interest. It was the Spirit rover, the other half of NASA’s now legendary Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) that landed on the Red Planet over a decade ago.

Yes, January 3rd of this year marks the 10th anniversary since the safe landing of NASA’s renowned Spirit rover on the plains of Mars, making her the oldest rover in operation on the planet’s service. Opportunity, her twin sister, landed on the opposite side of the Mars three weeks later – on Jan. 24, 2004. The goal was to “follow the water” as a potential enabler for past Martian microbes if they ever existed.

mars_roverTogether, the long-lived, golf cart sized robots proved that early Mars was warm and wet, billions of years ago – a key finding in the search for habitats conducive to life beyond Earth. It was these findings that have since been followed up on by Curiosity rover in its ongoing search for water and organic particles in the soil, and MAVEN’s planned surveys of the Martian atmosphere.

And it was a decade ago that the famous robot survived the 6 minute plunge through the thin Martian atmosphere, which involved scorching atmospheric heating, and then bounced some two dozen times inside cushioning airbags before coming to a stop. It then gradually rolled to a stop inside 161 km (100 mile) wide Gusev Crater. This landing was known as the “6 minutes of Terror”.

spiritrover_landerThe three petaled landing pad then opened and Spirit was deployed in what was a milestone event. This deployment will be forever remembered in the annuls of history, mainly because of the groundbreaking scientific discoveries that ensued, not to mention the unbelievable longevity of the twins. And while Spirit did not make it past 2010 – effectively remaining in service for six years – she accomplished quite a bit in that time.

Before they were launched atop a series of Delta II rockets in the summer of 2003 from Cape Canaveral, the dynamic, solar powered robo duo were expected to last for only 90 Martian days (Sols). NASA engineers firmly believed that dust accumulation on the life-giving solar panels, an engineering issue or the extremely harsh Martian environment would terminate them before long.

SpiritAndOpportunity_ByTheNumbers1-580x423But in reality, both robots enormously exceeded expectations and accumulated a vast bonus time of exploration and discovery in numerous extended mission phases. In part, the harsh Martian winds occasionally cleaned their solar panels to give them both a new lease on life. And more importantly, the rovers’ components just kept working miraculously.

And she kept working faithfully for six years until communications officially ceased in 2010. Altogether, Spirit drove 7.73 kilometers (4.8 miles) across the Martian surface – about 12 times more than the original goal set for the mission – and transmitted over 128,000 images. And shortly after landing, Spirit scaled Husband Hill and found evidence for the flow of liquid water at the Hillary outcrop.

Columbia_Hills_from_MER-A_landing_site_PIA05200_br2This was especially impressive, seeing as how the rovers were not designed to climb hills. But eventually, she managed to scale the 30 degree inclines and collect a series of rock samples using her Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT). The samples were then inspected using her on-board spectrometers and a microscopic imager. Eventually she drove back down the hill and made even greater scientific discoveries.

These occurred in 2007 in an area known as “Home Plate”, where she unexpectedly got mired thanks to an ancient volcanic feature named ‘Home Plate’ that prevented the solar arrays from generating. In the process, her right front wheel churned up a trench of bright Martian soil that exposed a patch of nearly pure silica, which was formed in a watery hot spring or volcanic environment.

Spirit-Sol-2175c-_Ken-KremerThree years later, in February of 2010, Spirit once again got mired and took her last panorama (pictured above), which was stitched together from raw images by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer. After several attempts to save her, NASA eventually declared Spirit dead in the water, her last resting place being the same as where she made her landing – the Gustev Crater in the Aeolis quadrangle.

At one time, many billions of years ago, the Ma’adim Vallis channel – a natural river-like depression running from the crater – probably carried liquid water and/or ice into Gutev. NASA scientists believe this has left sediments in the crater that could be up to 915 meters (3000 feet) thick. Spirit all but confirmed this when her tire turned up a patch of silica in 07, thus providing the first conclusive evidence of this theory.

Mosaic image taken on Jan. 4, 2004 after deployment
Mosaic image taken on Jan. 4, 2004 after deployment

The rovers’ principal investigator, Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., described some of the key findings in a NASA statement, starting with what Spirit found after driving from the crater floor where it landed into the Columbia hills to the east:

In the Columbia Hills, we discovered compelling evidence of an ancient Mars that was a hot, wet, violent place, with volcanic explosions, hydrothermal activity, steam vents — nothing like Mars today.

At Opportunity’s landing site, we found evidence of an early Mars that had acidic groundwater that sometimes reached the surface and evaporated away, leaving salts behind. It was an environment with liquid water, but very different from the environment that Spirit told us about.

When Opportunity got to the rim of Endeavour Crater, we began a whole new mission. We found gypsum veins and a rich concentration of clay minerals. The clay minerals tell us about water chemistry that was neutral, instead of acidic — more favorable for microbial life, if any ever began on Mars.

Because of the rovers’ longevity, we essentially got four different landing sites for the price of two.

maven_orbitMeanwhile, NASA’s new Curiosity rover just celebrated 500 Sols on Mars and is speeding towards Mount Sharp from inside Gale Crater – which is about the same size as Gusev crater. And a pair of newly launched orbiters are streaking towards the Red Planet as we speak – NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) and India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM).

In short, we are not finished with Mars yet. And the past, ongoing and future efforts of our many rovers, orbiters and (someday) astronauts are likely to keep providing us with a slew of new discoveries and revelations about our celestial neighbor.

Source: universetoday.com

News from Space: First Earth-Sized Exoplanet Found!

kepler78bFor the past three and a half years, the Kepler space telescope has been hurtling through space and searching the Milky Way for signs of of other planets orbiting distant stars. In that time, Kepler has identified many Earth-like exoplanets, many of which reside within our own stellar neighborhood. However, it has found only one planet in recent months that is Earth-sized.

That planet is known as Kepler-78b, the existence of of which was recently verified by NASA scientists at Cape Canaveral. Of all the planets discovered beyond our Solar System, this one is both rocky in composition and weighs in at roughly 1.2 times Earth’s mass. Beyond that, however, the similarities between this planet and our own end.

kepler78b2In addition to having an orbital period of 8.5 hours, the planet also rotates around its parent star at a distance of about 1.5 million kilometers (approx. 93205 miles). Basically, this means that Kepler-78b is thirty to forty-five times closer to its Sun than Mercury is to ours, and experiences a full year in under nine days. This makes Kepler 78b an extremely hostile environment, unsuitable for life as we know it.

Andrew Howard, of the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Institute for Astronomy and the lead author on one of two papers published in Nature magazine about the discovery of the new planet, said in recent webcast:

We’ve been hearing about the sungrazing Comet ISON that will go very close to the Sun next month. Comet ISON will approach the Sun about the same distance that Kepler-78b orbits its star, so this planet spends its entire life as a sungrazer.

Kepler78b1A handful of planets the size or mass of Earth have been discovered, but Kepler-78b is the first to have both a measured mass and size. At 1.2 times the size of Earth with a diameter of 14,800 km (9,200 miles), astronomers say it has a density similar to Earth’s, which suggests an Earth-like composition of iron and rock. Its star is slightly smaller and less massive than the sun and is located about 400 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus.

Verification of the planet’s existence and characteristics was made by two independent research teams that used ground-based telescopes for follow-up observations. The team led by Howard used the W. M. Keck Observatory atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii. The other team led by Francesco Pepe from the University of Geneva, Switzerland, did their ground-based work at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory on La Palma in the Canary Islands.

exoplanet_hotAnd while the discovery is exciting, the close proximity of Kepler-78b to its star poses a challenge to theorists. According to current theories of planet formation, it couldn’t have formed so close to its star, nor could it have moved there. Given that its star would have surely been larger when the system was in formation, Kepler-78b’s orbit would have put in inside the swollen star. Hence, the planet’s existence is an enigma.

To make matters worse, Kepler-78b is a doomed world. Gravitational tides will continue to pull Kepler-78b even closer to its star, and eventually it will move so close that the star’s gravity will rip the world apart. Theorists predict that the planet will vanish within three billion years. And while this may sounds like an eternity to us, in astronomical terms it represents a life cut short.

Source: universetoday.com, nature.com

Apollo Rocket Engines Recovered from Seafloor

apollo_rocketThis past week, history was made when Jeff Bezos (founder of Amazon.com) and his privately funded company, Bezos Expeditions, announced that they had successfully retrieved pieces of the very engines that had once launched Apollo astronauts to the moon. Using remotely operated vehicles and a series of slings, the crew members recovered enough parts to reconstruct the majority of two F-1 rocket boosters.

Bezos Expeditions announced last year that using state-of-the-art deep sea sonar, that they had discovered the remains off the coast of Cape Canaveral off the coast of Florida. And this past Thursday, and with NASA’s help, Bezos located the fragments at a depth of almost 4.8 kilometers (3 miles) and began hauling them to the surface. Bezos claims they belonged to the historic Apollo 11 spaceflight, but further study and restoration will be needed before their identity can be confirmed.

apollo_rocket1Regardless, this is an exciting find, and the nature of the rocket boosters confirms that they were at least part of the Apollo program. Between 1968 and 1972, ten missions were conducted that flew out of the Kennedy Space Center, each one using the Saturn V rocket, that used five F-1 engines to boost them into orbit. Once the rockets had spent their fuel, they were detached and fell into the sea.

That means that approximately sixty five F-1 engines reside in the ocean off the coast of Florida. No telling which of those these ones could be, but it is hoped that serial numbers will be retrieved from the engines that can connect them to a specific Apollo mission. But regardless, this is an exciting find, and could not have come at a better time since NASA is looking to embark on a renewed era of exploration.

saturn-v-rocket-engines-recovered-ocean-installed_65442_600x450All told, Bezos and his team spent three weeks at sea, working almost 5 kilometers below the surface. During this time, Bezos claims that his team found so much:

We’ve seen an underwater wonderland – an incredible sculpture garden of twisted F-1 engines that tells the story of a fiery and violent end, one that serves testament to the Apollo program. We photographed many beautiful objects in situ and have now recovered many prime pieces. Each piece we bring on deck conjures for me the thousands of engineers who worked together back then to do what for all time had been thought surely impossible.

Naturally, NASA was pretty impressed with the find as well. After the find was announced, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden made the following statement on behalf of the Agency:

This is a historic find and I congratulate the team for its determination and perseverance in the recovery of these important artifacts of our first efforts to send humans beyond Earth orbit. We look forward to the restoration of these engines by the Bezos team and applaud Jeff’s desire to make these historic artifacts available for public display.

Apollo_11Needless to say, this is an exciting find, regardless of whether or not these rockets were the same ones that sent Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to the Moon. Naturally, I hope it is. I can think of no greater tribute to Armstrong’s memory so soon after his passing. I can imagine him looking down on this from the stars, where he now resides, with a big old smile!

And be sure to check out this video taken by the Bezos Expedition of the undersea find:

Source: nationalgeographic.com, universetoday.com