Cassini, MESSENGER, and MOM: A Space Probe Odyssey

Cassini_Saturn_Orbit_InsertionIt had has been a big month in the field of space probes and satellites. Whether they are in orbit around Mercury, on their way to Mars, or floating in the outer Solar System, there’s been no shortage of news and inspirational footage to be had. And it is a testament to the age we live in, where space news is accessible and can instantly be shared with millions of people around the world.

First up, there’s the recent release of Cassini’s magnificent image of Saturn’s rings shining in all their glory. Back in July, Cassini got a good look back at Earth from about 1.5 billion kilometers (932 million miles) away. Known as
“The Day The Earth Smiled”, NASA has spent the past few months cobbling together this picture from numerous shots taken during Cassini’s circuitous orbit around Saturn.

cassini-jupiter-annotatedCassini has always been able to take impressive pictures in Earth’s general direction, but this picture was special since it used the enormous bulk of Saturn to block the usually confounding brightness of the Sun. Cassini, which was launched to survey the outer planets in 1997, captured an absolutely incredible image of both the Earth as a pale blue dot, and of Saturn as a striking, luminous apparition.

As part of NASA’s latest awareness campaign, which tried to get everyday citizens to smile at the sky for the first posed interplanetary photo most of us have ever experienced, the photo captured the halo effect that makes our sixth planet look truly breathtaking. In the annotated version (pictured above), you can also see Venus, Mars, and some of Saturn’s moons.

Next up, there’s the MESSENGER probe, which managed to capture these impressive new videos of Mercury’s surface. As part of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) ride-along imaging campaign, these videos were captured using the Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS). Even though the original high-res images were captured four seconds apart, these videos have been sped up to a rate of 15 images per second.

The views in each video are around 144-178 km (90-110 miles) across. The large crater visible in the beginning of the second video is the 191-km (118-mile) wide Schubert basin. In related news, there are new maps of Mercury available on the US Geological Survey website! Thanks to MESSENGER we now have the entirety of the first planet from the Sun imaged and mapped.

MESSENGER launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station back in August of 2004 and established orbit around Mercury on March 18th, 2011. It was the first man-made spacecraft ever to do so, and has provided the most comprehensive mapping of Mercury to date, not to mention evidence of ice, organic molecules, and detailed conditions on the surface.

India_Mars_Orbiter1And last, but not least, there was the recent launch of the Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) new Mars Orbiter Mission (aka. MOM). The launch took place on Tuesday, November 5th from the Indian space port located on a small island in the Bay of Bengal. As the nation’s first attempt to reach the Red Planet, the aim of the $70 million mission goes beyond mere research.

In addition to gathering information that might indicate if life has ever existed or could exist on Mars, the mission is also meant to showcase India’s growing prowess in the field of space and to jump ahead of its regional rival (China) in the big interplanetary march. As Pallava Bagla, one of India’s best known science commentators, put it:

In the last century the space race meant the US against the Soviets. In the 21st century it means India against China. There is a lot of national pride involved in this.

India Mars probeIn addition, there has been quite a bit of speculation that the missionw as designed to stimulate national pride in the midst of an ongoing economic crisis. In recent years, a plunging currency, ailing economy and the state’s seeming inability to deliver basic services have led many Indians to question whether their nation is quite as close to becoming a global superpower as it seemed in the last decade.

MOM is expected to arrive in the vicinity of Mars on September 24th, 2014 where it will assume an elliptical orbit around the planet and begin conducting atmospheric surveys. If all continues to goes well, India will the elite club of only four nations that have launched probes which successfully investigated the Red Planet from orbit or the surface – following the Soviet Union, the United States and the European Space Agency (ESA).

India_Mars_Orbiter2MOM was also the first of two new Mars orbiter science probes that left Earth and began heading for Mars this November. The second was NASA’s $671 million MAVEN orbiter, which launched on November 18th atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida. MAVEN is slated to arrive just two days before MOM, and research efforts will be coordinated between the two agencies.

Much like MAVEN, MOM’s goal is to study the Martian atmosphere , unlock the mysteries of its current state and determine how, why and when the atmosphere and liquid water were lost – and how this transformed Mars climate into its cold, desiccated state it is in today. In addition to aiding our scientific understanding of the world, it may help us to transform the planet into a liveable environment once again.

For many people, these developments are an indication of things to come. If humanity ever intends to become an interplanetary species, an expanding knowledge of our Solar System is an absolute prerequisite. And in many respects, making other planets our home may be the only way we can survive as a species, given our current rate of population growth and consumption.


NASA’s 3D Printed Moon Base

ESA_moonbaseSounds like the title of a funky children’s story, doesn’t it? But in fact, it’s actually part of NASA’s plan for building a Lunar base that could one day support inhabitants and make humanity a truly interplanetary species. My thanks to Raven Lunatick for once again beating me to the punch! While I don’t consider myself the jealous type, knowing that my friends and colleagues are in the know before I am on stuff like this always gets me!

In any case, people may recall that back in January of 2013, the European Space Agency announced that it could be possible to build a Lunar Base using 3D printing technology and moon dust. Teaming up with the architecture firm Foster + Partners, they were able to demonstrate that one could fashion entire structures cheaply and quite easily using only regolith, inflatable frames, and 3D printing technology.

sinterhab2_1And now, it seems that NASA is on board with the idea and is coming up with its own plans for a Lunar base. Much like the ESA’s planned habitat, NASA’s would be located in the Shackleton Crater near the Moon’s south pole, where sunlight (and thus solar energy) is nearly constant due to the Moon’s inclination on the crater’s rim. What’s more, NASA”s plan would also rely on the combination of lunar dust and 3D printing for the sake of construction.

However, the two plans differ in some key respects. For one, NASA’s plan – which goes by the name of SisterHab – is far more ambitious. As a joint research project between space architects Tomas Rousek, Katarina Eriksson and Ondrej Doule and scientists from Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), SinterHab is so-named because it involves sintering lunar dust: heating it up with microwaves to the point where the dust fuses to become a solid, ceramic-like block.

This would mean that bonding agents would not have to be flown to the Moon, which is called for in the ESA’s plan. What’s more, the NASA base would be constructed by a series of giant spider robots designed by JPL Robotics. The prototype version of this mechanical spider is known as the Athlete rover, which despite being a half-size variant of the real thing has already been successfully tested on Earth.

athlete_robotEach one of these robots is human-controlled, has six 8.2m legs with wheels at the end, and comes with a detachable habitable capsule mounted at the top. Each limb has a different function, depending on what the controller is looking to do. For example, it has tools for digging and scooping up soil samples, manipulators for poking around in the soil, and will have a microwave 3D printer mounted on one of the legs for the sake of building the base. It also has 48 3D cameras that stream video to its operator or a remote controlling station.

The immediate advantages to NASA’s plan are pretty clear. Sintering is quite cheap, in terms of power as well as materials, and current estimates claim that an Athlete rover should be able to construct a habitation “bubble” in only two weeks. Another benefit of the process is that astronauts could use it on the surface of the Moon surrounding their base, binding dust and stopping it from clogging their equipment. Moon dust is extremely abrasive, made up of tiny, jagged morcels rather than finely eroded spheres.

sinterhab3Since it was first proposed in 2010 at the International Aeronautical Congress, the concept of SinterHab has been continually refined and updated. In the end, a base built on its specifications will look like a rocky mass of bubbles connected together, with cladding added later. The equilibrium and symmetry afforded in this design not only ensures that grouping will be easy, but will also guarantee the structural integrity and longevity of the structures.

As engineers have known for quite some time, there’s just something about domes and bubble-like structures that were made to last. Ever been to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, or the Blue Mosque in Istanbul? Ever looked at a centuries old building with Onion Dome and felt awed by their natural beauty? Well, there’s a  reason they’re still standing! Knowing that we can expect similar beauty and engineering brilliance down the road gives me comfort.

In the meantime, have a gander at the gallery for the proposed SinterHab base, and be sure to check out this video of the Athlete rover in action: