News from Space: Coming Comet Flyby of Mars

Mars_comet_flybyEarth’s neighbor is once again making the news, but not for the usual reasons. Rather than groundbreaking discoveries or updates being provided by the small army of rovers or satellites, the NASA has now got its eyes firmly fixed on the Red Planet because of an incoming comet. And in the coming months, NASA is taking every precaution to make sure its orbiting spacecraft are out of the way.

Known as C/2013 A1 Siding Spring, the comet’s icy nucleus is predicted to flyby Mars on Oct. 19th, and will miss the planet by just 132,000 km (82,000 miles). That’s 17 times closer than the closest recorded Earth-approaching comet, Lexell’s Comet, which skittered by our world in 1770. And while this is certainly a record-breaking event, no one is concerned about it damaging anything on the Martian surface.

Mars_comet_sidingspringIn fact, it the dust particles embedded in the comet’s vaporizing ice that concerns NASA planners. As dust spreads into a broad tail that could potentially brush Mars’ upper atmosphere, it could also play havoc with or even strike an orbiter. While tiny particles are hardly a hazard on their own, when they are traveling at 56 km (35 miles) per second relative to a spacecraft, a single impact could spell disaster.

Rich Zurek, chief scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, explains:

Three expert teams have modeled this comet for NASA and provided forecasts for its flyby of Mars. The hazard is not an impact of the comet nucleus, but the trail of debris coming from it. Using constraints provided by Earth-based observations, the modeling results indicate that the hazard is not as great as first anticipated. Mars will be right at the edge of the debris cloud, so it might encounter some of the particles — or it might not.

mars-comet-NASAHence why NASA is looking to get its hardware out of the way. The agency currently operates the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Mars Odyssey spacecraft with a third orbiter, MAVEN, currently on its way to the planet and expected to settle into orbit a month before the comet flyby. Teams operating the orbiters plan to have all spacecraft positioned on the opposite side of Mars when the comet is most likely to pass by.

Already, mission planners tweaked MRO’s orbit on July 2 to move it toward a safe position with a second maneuver to follow on August 27. A similar adjustment is planned for Mars Odyssey on August 5 and October 9 for the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) probe. The time of greatest risk to the spacecraft is brief – about 20 minutes – when the widest part of the comet’s tail passes closest to the planet.

MARS-COMET-surfaceAs for the rovers on the surface, there really isn’t much to worry about there. Similar to what happens with meteor showers here on Earth, Mars’ atmosphere is thick enough that cometary dust particles will incinerate before they reach the surface. And its expected that rover cameras may be used to photograph the comet before the flyby and to capture meteors during the comet’s closest approach.

Despite concerns about dust, NASA knows a good opportunity when it sees one. In the days before and after the flyby, all three orbiters will conduct studies on the comet. According to a recent NASA press release, instruments on MRO and Odyssey will examine the nucleus, coma and tail and possible effects on the Martian atmosphere:

Odyssey will study thermal and spectral properties of the comet’s coma and tail. MRO will monitor Mars’ atmosphere for possible temperature increases and cloud formation, as well as changes in electron density at high altitudes and MAVEN will study gases coming off the comet’s nucleus as it’s warmed by the sun. The team anticipates this event will yield detailed views of the comet’s nucleus and potentially reveal its rotation rate and surface features.

This is Comet Siding Spring’s first trip to the inner solar system, so we can expect plenty of news and updates as it passes Mars. And the icy vapor and dust it leaves behind, which has been in a state of deep freeze since the time the planets were formed, will make for some pretty interest research as well! And be sure to check out this Solar System Scope simulation of the comet’s path as it makes it way through our Solar System past Mars.


News from Space: Insight Lander and the LDSD

mars-insight-lander-labelledScientists have been staring at the surface of Mars for decades through high-powered telescopes. Only recently, and with the help of robotic missions, has anyone been able to look deeper. And with the success of the Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity rovers, NASA is preparing to go deeper. The space agency just got official approval to begin construction of the InSight lander, which will be launched in spring 2016. While there, it’s going to explore the subsurface of Mars to see what’s down there.

Officially, the lander is known as the Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, and back in May, NASA passed the crucial mission final design review. The next step is to line up manufacturers and equipment partners to build the probe and get it to Mars on time. As with many deep space launches, the timing is incredibly important – if not launched at the right point in Earth’s orbit, the trip to Mars would be far too long.

Phoenix_landingUnlike the Curiosity rover, which landed on the Red Planet by way of a fascinating rocket-powered sky crane, the InSight will be a stationary probe more akin to the Phoenix lander. That probe was deployed to search the surface for signs of microbial life on Mars by collecting and analyzing soil samples. InSight, however, will not rely on a tiny shovel like Phoenix (pictured above) – it will have a fully articulating robotic arm equipped with burrowing instruments.

Also unlike its rover predecessors, once InSight sets down near the Martian equator, it will stay there for its entire two year mission – and possibly longer if it can hack it. That’s a much longer official mission duration than the Phoenix lander was designed for, meaning it’s going to need to endure some harsh conditions. This, in conjunction with InSight’s solar power system, made the equatorial region a preferable landing zone.

mars-core_bigFor the sake of its mission, the InSight lander will use a sensitive subsurface instrument called the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS). This device will track ground motion transmitted through the interior of the planet caused by so-called “marsquakes” and distant meteor impacts. A separate heat flow analysis package will measure the heat radiating from the planet’s interior. From all of this, scientists hope to be able to shed some light on Mars early history and formation.

For instance, Earth’s larger size has kept its core hot and spinning for billions of years, which provides us with a protective magnetic field. By contrast, Mars cooled very quickly, so NASA scientists believe more data on the formation and early life of rocky planets will be preserved. The lander will also connect to NASA’s Deep Space Network antennas on Earth to precisely track the position of Mars over time. A slight wobbling could indicate the red planet still has a small molten core.

If all goes to plan, InSight should arrive on Mars just six months after its launch in Spring 2016. Hopefully it will not only teach us about Mars’ past, but our own as well.

LDSDAfter the daring new type of landing that was performed with the Curiosity rover, NASA went back to the drawing table to come up with something even better. Their solution: the “Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator”, a saucer-shaped vehicle consisting of an inflating buffer that goes around the ship’s heat shield. It is hopes that this will help future spacecrafts to put on the brakes as they enter Mar’s atmosphere so they can make a soft, controlled landing.

Back in January and again in April, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory tested the LDSD using a rocket sled. Earlier this month, the next phase was to take place, in the form of a high-altitude balloon that would take it to an altitude of over 36,600 meters (120,000 feet). Once there, the device was to be dropped from the balloon sideways until it reached a velocity of four times the speed of sound. Then the LDSD would inflate, and the teams on the ground would asses how it behaved.

LDSD_testUnfortunately, the test did not take place, as NASA lost its reserved time at the range in Hawaii where it was slated to go down. As Mark Adler, the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) project manager, explained:

There were six total opportunities to test the vehicle, and the delay of all six opportunities was caused by weather. We needed the mid-level winds between 15,000 and 60,000 feet [4,500 meters to 18,230 meters] to take the balloon away from the island. While there were a few days that were very close, none of the days had the proper wind conditions.

In short, bad weather foiled any potential opportunity to conduct the test before their time ran out. And while officials don’t know when they will get another chance to book time at the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Missile Range in Kauai, Hawaii, they’re hoping to start the testing near the end of June. NASA emphasized that the bad weather was quite unexpected, as the team had spent two years looking at wind conditions worldwide and determined Kauai was the best spot for testing their concept over the ocean.

If the technology works, NASA says it will be useful for landing heavier spacecraft on the Red Planet. This is one of the challenges the agency must surmount if it launches human missions to the planet, which would require more equipment and living supplies than any of the rover or lander missions mounted so far. And if everything checks out, the testing goes as scheduled and the funding is available, NASA plans to use an LDSD on a spacecraft as early as 2018.

And in the meantime, check out this concept video of the LDSD, courtesy of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory:

Sources:, (2),

Looking Forward: Science Stories to Watch for in 2014

BrightFutureThe year of 2013 was a rather big one in terms of technological developments, be they in the field of biomedicine, space exploration, computing, particle physics, or robotics technology. Now that the New Year is in full swing, there are plenty of predictions as to what the next twelve months will bring. As they say, nothing ever occurs in a vacuum, and each new step in the long chain known as “progress” is built upon those that came before.

And with so many innovations and breakthroughs behind us, it will be exciting to see what lies ahead of us for the year of 2014. The following is a list containing many such predictions, listed in alphabetical order:

Beginning of Human Trials for Cancer Drug:
A big story that went largely unreported in 2013 came out of the Stanford School of Medicine, where researchers announced a promising strategy in developing a vaccine to combat cancer. Such a goal has been dreamed about for years, using the immune system’s killer T-cells to attack cancerous cells. The only roadblock to this strategy has been that cancer cells use a molecule known as CD47 to send a signal that fools T-cells, making them think that the cancer cells are benign.

pink-ribbonHowever, researchers at Stanford have demonstrated that the introduction of an “Anti-CD47 antibody” can intercept this signal, allowing T-cells and macrophages to identify and kill cancer cells. Stanford researchers plan to start human trials of this potential new cancer therapy in 2014, with the hope that it would be commercially available in a few years time. A great hope with this new macrophage therapy is that it will, in a sense, create a personalized vaccination against a patient’s particular form of cancer.

Combined with HIV vaccinations that have been shown not only to block the acquisition of the virus, but even kill it, 2014 may prove to be the year that the ongoing war against two of the deadliest diseases in the world finally began to be won.

Close Call for Mars:
A comet discovery back in 2013 created a brief stir when researchers noted that the comet in question – C/2013 A1 Siding Springs – would make a very close passage of the planet Mars on October 19th, 2014. Some even suspected it might impact the surface, creating all kinds of havoc for the world’s small fleet or orbiting satellites and ground-based rovers.

Mars_A1_Latest_2014Though refinements from subsequent observations have effectively ruled that out, the comet will still pass by Mars at a close 41,300 kilometers, just outside the orbit of its outer moon of Deimos. Ground-based observers will get to watch the magnitude comet close in on Mars through October, as will the orbiters and rovers on and above the Martian surface.

Deployment of the First Solid-State Laser:
The US Navy has been working diligently to create the next-generation of weapons and deploy them to the front lines. In addition to sub-hunting robots and autonomous aerial drones, they have also been working towards the creation of some serious ship-based firepower. This has included electrically-powered artillery guns (aka. rail guns); and just as impressively, laser guns!

Navy_LAWS_laser_demonstrator_610x406Sometime in 2014, the US Navy expects to see the USS Ponce, with its single solid-state laser weapon, to be deployed to the Persian Gulf as part of an “at-sea demonstration”. Although they have been tight-lipped on the capabilities of this particular directed-energy weapon,they have indicated that its intended purpose is as a countermeasure against threats – including aerial drones and fast-moving small boats.

Discovery of Dark Matter:
For years, scientists have suspected that they are closing in on the discovery of Dark Matter. Since it was proposed in the 1930s, finding this strange mass – that makes up the bulk of the universe alongside “Dark Energy” – has been a top priority for astrophysicists. And 2014 may just be the year that the Large Underground Xenon experiment (LUX), located near the town of Lead in South Dakota, finally detects it.

LUXLocated deep underground to prevent interference from cosmic rays, the LUX experiment monitors Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs) as they interact with 370 kilograms of super-cooled liquid Xenon. LUX is due to start another 300 day test run in 2014, and the experiment will add another piece to the puzzle posed by dark matter to modern cosmology. If all goes well, conclusive proof as to the existence of this invisible, mysterious mass may finally be found!

ESA’s Rosetta Makes First Comet Landing:
This year, after over a decade of planning, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta robotic spacecraft will rendezvous with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. This will begin on January 20th, when the ESA will hail the R0setta and “awaken” its systems from their slumber. By August, the two will meet, in what promises to be the cosmic encounter of the year. After examining the comet in detail, Rosetta will then dispatch its Philae lander, equipped complete with harpoons and ice screws to make the first ever landing on a comet.

Rosetta_and_Philae_at_comet_node_full_imageFirst Flight of Falcon Heavy:
2014 will be a busy year for SpaceX, and is expected to be conducting more satellite deployments for customers and resupply missions to the International Space Station in the coming year. They’ll also be moving ahead with tests of their crew-rated version of the Dragon capsule in 2014. But one of the most interesting missions to watch for is the demo flight of the Falcon 9 Heavy, which is slated to launch out of Vandenberg Air Force Base by the end of 2014.

This historic flight will mark the beginning in a new era of commercial space exploration and private space travel. It will also see Elon Musk’s (founder and CEO of Space X, Tesla Motors and PayPal) dream of affordable space missions coming one step closer to fruition. As for what this will make possible, well… the list is endless.

spaceX-falcon9Everything from Space Elevators and O’Neil space habitats to asteroid mining, missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond. And 2014 may prove to be the year that it all begins in earnest!

First Flight of the Orion:
In September of this coming year, NASA is planning on making the first launch of its new Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. This will be a momentous event since it constitutes the first step in replacing NASA’s capability to launch crews into space. Ever since the cancellation of their Space Shuttle Program in 2011, NASA has been dependent on other space agencies (most notably the Russian Federal Space Agency) to launch its personnel, satellites and supplies into space.

orion_arrays1The test flight, which will be known as Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1), will be a  short uncrewed flight that tests the capsule during reentry after two orbits. In the long run, this test will determine if the first lunar orbital mission using an Orion MPCV can occur by the end of the decade. For as we all know, NASA has some BIG PLANS for the Moon, most of which revolve around creating a settlement there.

Gaia Begins Mapping the Milky Way:
Launched on from the Kourou Space Center in French Guiana on December 19thof last year, the European Space Agency’s Gaia space observatory will begin its historic astrometry mission this year. Relying on an advanced array of instruments to conduct spectrophotometric measurements, Gaia will provide detailed physical properties of each star observed, characterising their luminosity, effective temperature, gravity and elemental composition.

Gaia_galaxyThis will effectively create the most accurate map yet constructed of our Milky Way Galaxy, but it is also anticipated that many exciting new discoveries will occur due to spin-offs from this mission. This will include the discovery of new exoplanets, asteroids, comets and much more. Soon, the mysteries of deep space won’t seem so mysterious any more. But don’t expect it to get any less tantalizing!

International Climate Summit in New York:
While it still remains a hotly contested partisan issue, the scientific consensus is clear: Climate Change is real and is getting worse. In addition to environmental organizations and agencies, non-partisan entities, from insurance companies to the U.S. Navy, are busy preparing for rising sea levels and other changes. In September 2014, the United Nations will hold another a Climate Summit to discuss what can be one.

United-Nations_HQThis time around, the delegates from hundreds of nations will converge on the UN Headquarters in New York City. This comes one year before the UN is looking to conclude its Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the New York summit will likely herald more calls to action. Though it’ll be worth watching and generate plenty of news stories, expect many of the biggest climate offenders worldwide to ignore calls for action.

MAVEN and MOM reach Mars:
2014 will be a red-letter year for those studying the Red Planet, mainly because it will be during this year that two operations are slated to begin. These included the Indian Space Agency’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM, aka. Mangalyaan-1) and NASA’ Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission, which are due to arrive just two days apart – on September 24th and 22nd respectively.

mars_lifeBoth orbiters will be tasked with studying Mars’ atmosphere and determining what atmospheric conditions looked like billions of years ago, and what happened to turn the atmosphere into the thin, depleted layer it is today. Combined with the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers, ESA’s Mars Express,  NASA’s Odyssey spacecraft and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, they will help to unlock the secrets of the Red Planet.

Unmanned Aircraft Testing:
A lot of the action for the year ahead is in the area of unmanned aircraft, building on the accomplishments in recent years on the drone front. For instance, the US Navy is expected to continue running trials with the X-47B, the unmanned technology demonstrator aircraft that is expected to become the template for autonomous aerial vehicles down the road.

X-47BThroughout 2013, the Navy conducted several tests with the X-47B, as part of its ongoing UCLASS (Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike) aircraft program. Specifically, they demonstrated that the X-47B was capable of making carrier-based take offs and landings. By mid 2014, it is expected that they will have made more key advances, even though the program is likely to take another decade before it is fully realizable.

Virgin Galactic Takes Off:
And last, but not least, 2014 is the year that space tourism is expected to take off (no pun intended!). After many years of research, development and testing, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo may finally make its inaugural flights, flying out of the Mohave Spaceport and bringing tourists on an exciting (and expensive) ride into the upper atmosphere.

spaceshiptwo-2nd-flight-2In late 2013, SpaceShipTwo and passed a key milestone test flight when its powered rocket engine was test fired for an extended period of time and it achieved speeds and altitudes in excess of anything it had achieved before. Having conducted several successful glide and feathered-wing test flights already, Virgin Galactic is confident that the craft has what it takes to ferry passengers into low-orbit and bring them home safely.

On its inaugural flights, SpaceShipTwo will carry two pilots and six passengers, with seats going for $250,000 a pop. If all goes well, 2014 will be remembered as the year that low-orbit space tourism officially began!

Yes, 2014 promises to be an exciting year. And I look forward to chronicling and documenting it as much as possible from this humble little blog. I hope you will all join me on the journey!

Sources: Universetoday, (2),, news.cnet, listosaur,

Robot Snakes to Explore Mars?

curiosity_sol-177-1The recent discoveries and accomplishments of the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers have been very impressive. But for some, these successes have overshadowed the limitations that are part of the rover designs. Yes, despite their complexity and longevity (as evidenced by Opportunity’s ten years of service) the robot rovers really aren’t that fast or agile, and are limited when it comes to what they can access.

Case in point, Curiosity is currently on a year-long trek that is taking it from the Glenelg rocky outcropping to Mount Sharp, which is just over 8 km (5 miles) away. And where crevices, holes and uneven terrain are involved, they’ve been known to have trouble. This was demonstrated with the Spirit Rover, which was lost on May 1st, 2009 after getting stuck in soft soil.

robotsnakesAs a result, the European Space Agency is planning on a sending a different type of rover to Mars in the future. Basically, their plan calls for the use of robot snakes. This plan is the result of collaborative study between the ESA and SINTEF – the largest independent research organization in Scandinavia – that sought to create a rover that would be able to navigate over long distances and get into places that were inaccessible to other rovers.

They concluded that a snake-like robot design would open up all kinds of possibilities, and be able to collect samples from areas that other rovers simply couldn’t get into. In addition to being able to move across challenging surfaces, these snake-bots would also be able to tunnel underground and get at soil and rock samples that are inaccessible to a land rover. Curiosity, which despite its advanced drill, is limited in what it can examine from Mars’ interior.

robotsnakes1The researchers envisage using the rover to navigate over large distances, after which the snake robot can detach itself and crawl into tight, inaccessible areas. A cable will connect the robot to the vehicle and will supply power and tractive power – i.e. it can be winched back to the rover. Communication between the pair will be also be facilitated via signals transmitted down the cable.

According to Pål Liljebäck, one of the researchers developing the snake robot at SINTEF, the challenge presents several opportunities for creative solutions:

We are looking at several alternatives to enable a rover and a robot to work together. Since the rover has a powerful energy source, it can provide the snake robot with power through a cable extending between the rover and the robot. If the robot had to use its own batteries, it would run out of power and we would lose it. One option is to make the robot into one of the vehicle’s arms, with the ability to disconnect and reconnect itself, so that it can be lowered to the ground, where it can crawl about independently.

An additional benefit of this rover-snake collaboration is that in the event that the rover gets stuck, the snake can be deployed to dig it out. Alternately, it could act as an anchor by coiling itself about a rock while the rover using the cable as a winch to pull itself free.

robotsnake2Liljebäck and his colleague, Aksel Transeth, indicate that SINTEF’s Department of Applied Cybernetics has been working closely with the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s (NTNU) Department of Engineering Cybernetics for many years. However, it was only recently that these efforts have managed to bear fruit in the form or their robot snake-rover design, which they hope will trigger a long-term partnership with the ESA.

In addition to researching rover design, Transeth, Liljebäck and other researchers working with the ESA are looking for ways to bring samples from Mars back to Earth. At present, soil and other materials taken from Mars are analyzed on board the rover itself, and the results communicated back to Earth. If these samples could be physically transported home, they could be studied for years to come, and yield much more fascinating information.

And be sure to enjoy this video of the robot snake in action:


The researchers are busy working on a feasibility study assigned to them by the ESA. The ESA and the researchers believe that by combining a rover that can navigate over large distances with a snake robot that can crawl along the ground and can get into inaccessible places, so many more possibilities could be opened up.