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Mar 062015

Today’s the day: on March 6, 2015, at about 7:40 EST, (12:39 GMT) NASA’s Dawn spacecraft arrived at Ceres, becoming the first spacecraft ever to orbit a dwarf planet. NASA officials got a signal Dawn confirming that it’s healthy and in orbit at about 8:36 a.m. EST (1336 GMT) today. Ceres is the largest body in the Asteroid Belt. It’s about 590 miles in diameter, big enough and massive enough to be pulled into a roughly spherical shape. Its density is lower than that of Earth for the same volume, though, so it has a gravity scarcely 3% that of Earth. It’s got an atmosphere – barely. Most of it seems to be water vapor, and the source could be two or three large jets of vapor erupting continuously from its surface.

Humans have only known about Ceres since its discovery in 1801. We knew it was in the Asteroid Belt, between the orbits of rocky Mars and the gas giant Jupiter. We estimated its size, and its approximate mass. That, however, was about the extent of it. First it was classified as a planet, then an asteroid, and now we’re calling it a dwarf planet. Now that Dawn has completed its 3.1 billion mile, 7.5 year journey, we can really study this relic from the earliest times of our star system’s history.

Even from 30,000 miles out (48,000 kilometers), the images had already begun to show detail that mystified. It’s gray, and cratered, like our own Moon. However, it also has intensely bright spots, and two of them, nestled in the center of a crater in its northern hemisphere, look like a pair of tiny eyeballs staring back at us. What are they? Initial guesses made them cryovolcanic eruptions of water from the dwarf planet’s mantle of water, but on closer examination we can already tell that they’re missing some of the key physical features that would need to be there. The current best guess is that they’re simply very very reflective ice. We won’t know for sure until we start getting some more detailed pictures from closer in, and we should begin to see those pictures in the coming days and weeks.

This is the end of Dawn’s voyage through space; its first stop was Vesta, the next largest object in the Asteroid Belt. Vesta’s diameter is only about 330 miles, and it’s far enough from Ceres that the journey from Vesta to Ceres took the Dawn probe almost three years to make the trip. The milestone comes just four months ahead of another highly anticipated dwarf-planet encounter: On July 14, NASA’s New Horizons probe will zoom through the Pluto system, giving scientists their first good looks at that faraway dwarf planet and its five known moons.

The two bodies are “intact protoplanets from the very dawn of the solar system,” Dawn Deputy Principal Investigator Carol Raymond, also of JPL, said during a news conference Monday (March 2).” So they’re literally fossils that we can investigate to really understand the processes that were going on at that time.”

The mission’s spaceflight feats are made possible by Dawn’s innovative propulsion system, which accelerates xenon ions out the back of the spacecraft. This process generates tiny amounts of thrust; it would take Dawn four days to go from 0 to 60 mph (97 km/h), team members have said. Even so, Dawn’s ion drive is about 10 times more efficient than traditional chemical systems. The engines can keep firing for weeks, months and years, accelerating Dawn to tremendous speeds.

“With the 1,000 lbs. of xenon propellant that was loaded on board, Dawn has already accomplished more than 24,000 mph of velocity change,” Dawn project manager Robert Mase of JPL said during Monday’s news conference. “To put that in context: That’s more than it takes to get a vehicle from the surface of the Earth up to the International Space Station.” Thanks to ion propulsion, Dawn crept up on Ceres slowly and gradually. The probe eased into orbit today without the need for any harrowing make-or-break maneuvers.

Ceres is an intriguing world that in many ways looks more like the icy moons of the outer solar system, such as Jupiter’s satellite Europa and the Saturn moon Enceladus, than its rocky neighbors in the asteroid belt. For example, the dwarf planet is thought to consist of 25 to 30 percent water by mass, mostly in the form of ice. Ceres may also once have had (and might even still possess) an ocean of liquid water beneath its surface, as Europa and Enceladus do. Indeed, some researchers think Ceres may be capable of supporting microbial life.

“It’s really going to be exciting to see what this exotic, alien world looks like,” Rayman told Space.com in late January. “We’re finally going to learn about this place.”

Dawn can’t scan for alien life forms. It doesn’t have the necessary equipment to do that. However, if Ceres’ hypothesized underground ocean exists, Ceres may be able to spot evidence of it. They may even be able to figure out how heat is transferred through Ceres, which could shed some light on whether the dwarf planet has underground liquid water.

Overall, Dawn will characterize the dwarf planet in detail, mapping out its surface and determining what Ceres is made of.

Dawn will spend the next six weeks spiraling down to its initial science orbit, getting there on April 23. The probe will then begin taking Ceres’ measure from an altitude of 8,400 miles (13,500 km). Dawn will study the dwarf planet from a series of increasingly closer-in orbits until the mission ends in June 2016.

As space exploration goes, this is some pretty intriguing stuff. We’ll keep you posted as we learn more.

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Feb 132015
Click on the image to get the amazing full sized poster.
Click on the image to get the amazing full sized poster.

Click on the image to get the amazing full sized poster.

Proving that science fiction and science fact often go hand in hand, NASA released the official poster for the International Space Station Expedition 45 crew. It’s very clear that the Force is strong with them. The six astronauts and cosmonauts, who will begin their residency on the orbital outpost beginning this September, traded their blue NASA flight suits for brown Jedi robes at the photo shoot. The attention to detail is inspirational, and reaffirms our faith in the people whose job it is to make the space program appealing to the general public.

Entitled International Space Station Expedition XLV: The Science Continues, the poster features the station’s first year-long mission crew Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko (right, bottom and middle), together with NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren (left, bottom), Russian cosmonauts Sergei Volkov and Oleg Kononenko (right, top and left, top) and Kimiya Yui with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. Each is dressed perfectly in Jedi robes that look like they came straight from the wardrobe truck, and each carries a differently colored light saber. If they wanted an inspiring, exciting image for their official poster, we think they nailed it.

Did you miss that bit about this new mission featuring the first year long mission crew? No astronaut has ever been in space for a solid year, but American astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko will be the first two humans to do it. Last December 18 the pair appeared at a press conference at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in Paris to discuss the mission.

“What makes this exciting, for me, this one-year flight is about the science and everything we’re going to learn from expanding the envelope on the space station greater than we’ve currently done,” Kelly said. “We’re going to go to Mars some day. The International Space Station is really a great platform to learn much more about having people live and work in space for longer durations. This one year flight is one of the many stepping stones towards leaving low Earth orbit.”

And it gets even more interesting. Scott Kelly has a twin brother, who is also an astronaut. His brother, Mark Kelly, will remain on Earth as a control subject. Since they’re almost exactly identical, NASA will be able to get a lot of information by comparing the two men’s physiology and psychology. Even better, since Mark is an astronaut too, NASA has data on him going back to 1995.

Mark Kelly is also the husband of Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords (D), who survived being shot in the head in 2011 by a gunman during a public appearance near Tucson. By May of that year Giffords had recovered enough to travel Kennedy Space Center to watch the launch of STS-134, the final flight of Space Shuttle Endeavour, which was commanded by her husband Kelly.

The successful test of the Orion spacecraft last December dovetails with this. The craft is meant for missions that take space voyagers out of near Earth orbit, and is the first craft since the Apollo series to do so.

Good luck on the mission, guys. And may the Force be with you.

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Jan 262015

by Gene Turnbow, station manager

It’s a big one. Roughly the size of a mountain, about a third of a mile (half a kilometer) across, the flying rock has the rather unglamorous name of 2004 BL86. Don’t worry, it’s not going to hit us. The asteroid will safely pass about three times the distance of Earth to the moon today. This is the closest any space rock this big will pass us until asteroid 1999 AN10 flies past Earth in 2027. It will be about 745,000 miles away from us today, and that’s the closest it’s going to get. It won’t get this close again for another 200 years.


This graphic depicts the passage of asteroid 2004 BL86, which will come no closer than about three times the distance from Earth to the moon on Jan. 26, 2015. Due to its orbit around the sun, the asteroid is currently only visible by astronomers with large telescopes who are located in the southern hemisphere. But by Jan. 26, the space rock’s changing position will make it visible to those in the northern hemisphere. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The fact that it’s coming this close gives NASA scientists a chance to do a little science. They’re going to bounce microwaves off it. NASA’s Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, California, and the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico have been trying to get science data and radar-generated images of the asteroid during its approach to Earth.

“When we get our radar data back the day after the flyby, we will have the first detailed images,” said radar astronomer Lance Benner of JPL, the principal investigator for the Goldstone radar observations of the asteroid. “At present, we know almost nothing about the asteroid, so there are bound to be surprises.”

Asteroid 2004 BL86 was initially discovered on Jan. 30, 2004, by a telescope of the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) survey in White Sands, New Mexico.

If you want to see this asteroid for yourself, it’s big enough and close enough that you can probably spot it with nearly any amateur telescope, or a really good pair of binoculars.

“I may grab my favorite binoculars and give it a shot myself,” said Yeomans. “Asteroids are something special. Not only did asteroids provide Earth with the building blocks of life and much of its water, but in the future, they will become valuable resources for mineral ores and other vital natural resources. They will also become the fueling stops for humanity as we continue to explore our solar system. There is something about asteroids that makes me want to look up.”

NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office is experiencing its first transition in leadership since it was formed almost 17 years ago. On Jan. 9, after a 39-year-long career at JPL, Yeomans retired, and was replaced by Paul Chodas, a long-time member of Yeomans’ team at JPL. This NASA office  detects, tracks and characterizes asteroids and comets using both ground-based and space-based telescopes. Elements of the Near-Earth Object Program, often referred to as “Spaceguard,” discover these objects, characterize a subset of them and identify their close approaches to determine if any could be potentially hazardous to our planet. Think of it as an astronomical neighborhood watch.

JPL manages the Near-Earth Object Program Office for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

For more information on asteroids and other near-Earth objects, visit the JPL page at http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/asteroidwatch.

To get updates on passing space rocks, follow http://twitter.com/asteroidwatch on Twitter.

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Jan 252015
Detail from Opportunity's panorama photo (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.)

by Cat Ellen, contributing writer

Oppy’s Anniversary Panorama

The panarama from Cape Tribulation, from NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.)

The panorama from Cape Tribulation, from NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.)

The “little rover that could” continues to mark newer and more impressive milestones. Just three weeks before the 11th anniversary of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity’s landing in January 2004, the rover captured a panorama photo from one of the highest elevations of its travels. In these 11 years on Mars, Opportunity has driven just under 26 miles, not only the furtherest distance of any off-Earth vehicle, but impressive for a rover that was originally slated for only a three month long mission.

Opportunity climbed to a raised section of the rim of Endeavour Crater, and this panorama spans the 14-mile-wide crater and extends to another crater on the horizon. The climb from the lowest portion of the rim, Botany Bay, to the highest point at Cape Tribulation totals approximately 440 feet in elevation.

Detail from Opportunity's panorama photo (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.)

Detail from Opportunity’s panorama photo (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.)

Opportunity extended a robotic arm so that the U.S. flag would be visible in the panorama photo. The aluminum cable guard on the rover’s rock abrasion tool was built from aluminum recovered from the site of the Twin Towers after the attack on September 11, 2001. The flag is intended as a memorial to the victims of Sept. 11. The rock abrasion tool was being built by workers at Honeybee robotics, less than a mile from the World Trade Center, during September 2001.

Photos from both Spirit and Opportunity for the past eleven years can be found on the NASA website.

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Jan 202015
Dawn approaches Vesta

by Gene Turnbow, station manager

As NASA’s Dawn spacecraft closes in on Ceres, new images show the dwarf planet at 27 pixels across, about three times better than the calibration images taken in early December. These images were taken with the Framing Camera, and are mostly meant to help the tiny craft stay on course. The best is yet to come, as Dawn will deliver increasingly detailed images of the dwarf planet as it continues its approach. NASA expects that Dawn will achieve orbit around Ceres on March 6, and once there it will stay in orbit for 16 months.

The Dawn spacecraft observed Ceres for an hour on Jan. 13, 2015, from a distance of 238,000 miles (383,000 kilometers). A little more than half of its surface was observed at a resolution of 27 pixels, but even from this distance you can see some of the surface detail, and a bright spot we think is some kind of volcanic activity. This animated GIF shows bright and dark features. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI

The Dawn spacecraft observed Ceres for an hour on Jan. 13, 2015, from a distance of 238,000 miles (383,000 kilometers). A little more than half of its surface was observed at a resolution of 27 pixels, but even from this distance you can see some of the surface detail, and a bright spot we think is some kind of volcanic activity. This animated GIF shows bright and dark features.

“We know so much about the solar system and yet so little about dwarf planet Ceres. Now, Dawn is ready to change that,” said Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer and mission director, based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

The best images of Ceres taken so far are still from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, taken in 2003 and 2004. The images in the animated GIF above are about 80 percent of Hubble’s resolution, so they’re a bit fuzzier. By the end of January, though, there will be another imaging opportunity, and the pictures Dawn sends back will surpass anything the Hubble could deliver.

Dawn approaches Vesta

The Dawn space probe, with ion drive blazing, approaches the proto-planet Vesta in the asteroid belt. (artist’s conception) Image credit: NASA/JPL

Ceres is the largest body in the main asteroid belt, which lies between Mars and Jupiter. It has an average diameter of 590 miles (950 kilometers), and is thought to contain a large amount of ice. At that diameter, it’s just big enough to have sufficient gravity to pull it into that familiar round planet shape. Ceres is only about a third as dense as Earth, and obviously a lot smaller, so the gravity there is only about 3 percent of  what we experience. That’s low enough that even the most seasoned astronaut would have difficulty walking there. For reference, the Moon has about one sixth of Earth’s gravity, and Mars has about one third.

As for the composition of Ceres, some scientists believe that the surface is covered in frost, under which there should be a thin layer of dust and rubble as a crust. Beneath that is likely to be more ice, but the evidence of volcanic action suggests that Ceres is internally heated somehow, and that makes it possible for there to be an ocean of liquid water in the planet’s core.

“The team is very excited to examine the surface of Ceres in never-before-seen detail,” said Chris Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission, based at the University of California, Los Angeles. “We look forward to the surprises this mysterious world may bring.”

The spacecraft was launched in 2007. Vesta is the second largest object in the asteroid belt, with an average diameter of 326 miles (525 kilometers). Dawn arrived there on June 16, 2011. After taking more than 30,000 images of Vesta over a year’s time, Dawn fired up its ion drive, left orbit and started heading for Ceres. It’s taken this long to get within visual range of Ceres. A ship that has nothing but ion drive takes forever to get anywhere, but the fact that Dawn has it allowed it to be the first spacecraft of any kind to be sent on two deep space missions.

JPL manages the Dawn mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Dawn is a project of the directorate’s Discovery Program, managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) is responsible for overall Dawn mission science.

Orbital Sciences Corp. in Dulles, Virginia, designed and built the spacecraft. The Dawn framing cameras were developed and built under the leadership of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Gottingen, Germany, with significant contributions by German Aerospace Center (DLR), Institute of Planetary Research, Berlin, and in coordination with the Institute of Computer and Communication Network Engineering, Braunschweig. The Framing Camera project is funded by the Max Planck Society, DLR, and NASA/JPL. The Italian Space Agency and the Italian National Astrophysical Institute are international partners on the mission team.

We’re watching this mission with particular interest, since Krypton Radio’s new radio serial space adventure Halfway Home is set on both Ceres and Vesta.

As Dawn gets closer, the scientific discoveries and the wealth of images that lead to them should be amazing. Bookmark Krypton Radio, and be sure not to miss these exciting developments!

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Jan 172015
Planet scientist Colin Pillinger with a model of Beagle 2 in 2003. (Image credit: Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

by Cat Ellen, contributing writer

Photos of lost lander studied

Components of Beagle 2 Flight System on Mars (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona/University of Leicester)

Components of Beagle 2 Flight System on Mars (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona/University of Leicester)

On Mars, the planet entirely populated by robots and satellites, a “lost” lander was found in the images from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The Beagle 2 Mars Lander, built by the United Kingdom, never reported in from the surface of the planet back in 2003. The fate of Beagle 2 remained a mystery for more than 11 years, until images from the orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera showed evidence that the lander only partially deployed on the surface after its touchdown on December 25, 2003.

“I am delighted that Beagle 2 has finally been found on Mars,” said Mark Sims of the University of Leicester, U.K. He was an integral part of the Beagle 2 project from the start, leading the initial study phase and was Beagle 2 mission manager. “Every Christmas Day since 2003 I have wondered what happened to Beagle 2. My Christmas Day in 2003 alongside many others who worked on Beagle 2 was ruined by the disappointment of not receiving data from the surface of Mars. To be frank I had all but given up hope of ever knowing what happened to Beagle 2. The images show that we came so close to achieving the goal of science on Mars.”

The European Space Agency (ESA) mission, dubbed the Mars Express for the quick development and low cost, includes a complement of seven instruments designed to study atmosphere, climate, minerology, and geology on Mars. The Beagle 2 lander was carried on the Mars Express and was released on December 19, 2003. It was due to land six days later, but no transmissions were ever recorded from the lander. Both the Mars Express and NASA’s Mars Odyssey missions searched for evidence of Beagle 2 and were unsuccessful. The lander had been considered lost since 2004.

Potential evidence of Beagle 2 has been identified in the expected landing location of Isidis Planitia, a large impact crater near the planet equator. Analysis of the images seems to show that the hardware of Beagle 2 remains only partially deployed. The main parachute and rear cover appear to be close by the lander.

It seems that only some of the four solar panels are open. Since full deployment of the solar panels was needed to expose the radio antenna, this would explain why the lander never managed a successful transmission to Earth. Currently, there are no methods for reviving the lander or recovering data since the antenna seems to remain covered.

Planet scientist Colin Pillinger with a model of Beagle 2 in 2003. (Image credit: Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

Planet scientist Colin Pillinger with a model of Beagle 2 in 2003. (Image credit: Scott Barbour/Getty Images)


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