Sep 212014
 
Artist concept of NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft arrival (Image Credit: NASA/GSFC)

by Nur Hussein, staff writer

[updated with additional information and corrections given at NASA press conference, September 22, 2014, 12:01 a.m. EDT]

Huge cheers just went up across the nation as NASA’s MAVEN probe successfully transitioned from its heliocentric orbit to an elliptical, 35-hour orbit around Mars! It was a nail-biting 33 minutes as the probe autonomously reversed itself and initiated a burn from its 6 main engines, in order to slow itself enough for Mars’ gravitational field to be able to ”catch” it. Part of this maneuver caused MAVEN’s high-gain antenna to be temporarily pointed away from Earth. Because it takes signals 12.5 minutes to reach Mars from Earth (and at a data rate of 40 bps: no mistake! Forty bits per second!) using the low-gain antenna, there was no way for MAVEN’s teams to give it any assistance or corrections; the intrepid little orbiter did it on her own.

On November 18, 2013, the Atlas V 401 rocket carrying the MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) space probe took off from Cape Canaveral and started its trek into the inky void of space towards Mars. Its mission is to study the Martian atmosphere to determine, among other things, how the once-abundant supply of water on Mars was lost over the ages. Today, the MAVEN spacecraft has crossed 442 million miles and successfully reached Mars and is in orbit around the red planet.

One of the biggest challenges for the probe was actually getting it into orbit around Mars. With the spacecraft traveling at intensely high speeds, almost doubling in velocity in the last few hours before transition, it needed to reduce its velocity from about 12,800 MPH to approximately 10,000 MPH before it was captured by the Martian gravitational field. To do this, it had to fire its thrusters in the opposite direction and burn fuel for about 33 minutes. Its initial orbit is now an elongated 35-hour orbit. Tim Priser, chief spacecraft systems engineer at Lockheed Martin explained that MAVEN’s burn was, “a little bit underperforming, relative to predictions,” and so it burned for a little longer than expected tonight.

Over the next couple of weeks, MAVEN will initiate 5 more short burns to adjust its orbit, and will ultimately settle into a 4.5-hour orbit, which will be almost circular. Once it achieves that tighter orbit, the teams will deploy MAVEN’s science instruments, and the main body of research will begin.

But MAVEN hasn’t been sitting idle as she traveled. She’s been gathering data on the solar winds between Earth and Mars, because it’s thought that these winds are a significant factor in what happened to the atmosphere and water on Mars.

It’s a huge collaboration between industry, academia, and government. Lockheed Martin Denver managed the engineering of the probe. JPL is in charge of monitoring navigational and telemetry data. The onboard instrumentation for MAVEN was built by three different facilities; the UC Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory built the Particles and Field (P&F) package, the University of Colorado Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics built the Remote Sensing (RS) package, and the Goddard Space Flight Center built the Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer (NGIMS) package.

MAVEN will determine how much of the Martian atmosphere has been lost over time by measuring the current rate of escape to space and gathering enough information about the relevant processes to allow extrapolation backward in time.

In addition to gathering data for this main focus of study, MAVEN will get a rare, up-close look at a comet as it passes by Mars, at about one-third the distance from Mars to Earth. As a safety precaution, MAVEN will be on the other side of Mars when the comet makes its closest approach, but MAVEN will get plenty of chances to gather data about the comet and its effect on Mars’ atmosphere.

With any luck, MAVEN won’t be alone in orbit for long. India has another probe named MOM (Mars Orbiter Mission) on its way, and set to make Martian orbit in November 2014. MOM’s study will also focus on the Martian atmosphere, searching for the signature of methane (CH4) in the Martian atmosphere, which has previously been detected from Martian orbit and telescopes on Earth. CH4 has a short lifetime in the Martian atmosphere, meaning that some source on the Mars must replenish it. About 95% of the methane on Earth is produced by microbes, so there is some speculation that Mars may be hiding a biosphere beneath its surface. Geologic processes can also produce methane, so that’s another intriguing line of questioning.

Update

David Mitchell, MAVEN’s project manager, said at NASA’s press conference, “This was a very big day for MAVEN. We’re very excited to join the constellation of spacecraft in orbit at Mars and on the surface of the Red Planet. The commissioning phase will keep the operations team busy for the next six weeks, and then we’ll begin, at last, the science phase of the mission. Congratulations to the team for a job well done today … You get one shot with orbital insertion, and MAVEN nailed it tonight We’re really happy for the crew and their families … things looks great with the orbit a this point … Duration of the burn was 34 minutes, 26 seconds: about 11 seconds longer than nominal. The observed navigational data is all within the nominal range, and tracking data shows we’re in a stable orbit. In the next couple of days, we’ll do our second burn. I’m looking forward to that.” Asked whether the riskiest parts of the mission were over, Mitchell added, “I personally will breathe a lot easier come November 8, once the science starts and we can see that everything is working.”

“NASA has a long history of scientific discovery at Mars and the safe arrival of MAVEN opens another chapter,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of the NASA Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington. “Maven will complement NASA’s other Martian robotic explorers—and those of our partners around the globe—to answer some fundamental questions about Mars and life beyond Earth.”

MAVEN’s principal investigator, Bruce Jakosky said, “I think my heart’s about ready to start again! We’ve been developing this mission for about 11 years now, and I can’t tell you how [much went into] this flawless performance tonight … It’s a real testament to the team. We’ve had over 600 people working on MAVEN over the course of its life … They have put their heart and soul into doing each and every task that helped us get here tonight …We are anxiously awaiting the arrival in 2 days of the Indian MOM mission. We wish them all the best luck from everyone on the MAVEN team.”

Over the next 6 weeks, the various teams will commission the spacecraft, deploy the booms, which have instruments that must be turned on, tested, and calibrated, and will be sending and receiving data from the Curiosity rover. MAVEN then will begin its one Earth-year primary mission, taking measurements of the composition, structure and escape of gases in Mars’ upper atmosphere and its interaction with the sun and solar wind.

As MAVEN goes through her walk-down manuevers, her orbit height will go from periapsis (lowest orbit altitude) of 93 miles (150 kilometers) to about 77 miles (125 kilometers). She’ll be collecting atmospheric data as her altitude changes, which will show where the upper and lower atmospheres meet, giving scientists a full profile of the upper tier.

On October 19, 2014, Comet Siding Spring (C/2013 A1) will pass Mars at a distance of only 82,021 miles (132,000 kilometers). MAVEN will take 5 days, centered on the comet’s closest approach, to observe and record the comet’s effects on the Mars environment.

The press conference ended with a question from Twitter user. Are there any superstitions that the MAVEN team observes? Mitchell replied, “It’s a common tradition to bring peanuts to launches and orbital insertions. Peanuts are good luck. This mission, [someone also brought] Mars bars. I think we may adopt that as a new tradition!”

Congratulations to all of MAVEN’s teams for this breathtaking achievement! Despite the fact that we’ve been in space for decades, it’s still amazing every time. Having a spacecraft put itself into planetary orbit sounds so much like science fiction brought to life.

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Sep 212014
 
The latest view of Pahrump Hills from Curiosity (image credit: NASA/JPL)

by Cat Ellen, contributing writer

MAVEN scheduled to arrive

Artist concept of NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft arrival (Image Credit: NASA/GSFC)

Artist concept of NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft arrival (Image Credit: NASA/GSFC)

On the evening of September 21, 2014, NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft should arrive and enter into Martian orbit after completing the 442 million mile trek from Earth to Mars. The current mission timeline places MAVEN in orbit likely around 7:00 p.m., Pacific.

“So far, so good with the performance of the spacecraft and payloads on the cruise to Mars,” said David Mitchell, MAVEN project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “The team, the flight system, and all ground assets are ready for Mars orbit insertion.”

After achieving initial orbit and then spending six weeks testing and maneuvering, MAVEN will embark on a one-Earth-year mission measuring and examining the upper atmosphere of Mars.

“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,” said Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN principal investigator from the University of Colorado, Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. “These are important questions for understanding the history of Mars, its climate, and its potential to support at least microbial life.”

Curiosity arrives at Pahrump Hills

The latest view of Pahrump Hills from Curiosity (image credit: NASA/JPL)

The latest view of Pahrump Hills from Curiosity (image credit: NASA/JPL)

Meanwhile, Curiosity has been headed over towards Mount Sharp. Curiosity Rover driver Matt Heverly from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) posted a lovely image to Twitter, welcoming the rover to Pahrump Hills.

“We have been driving hard for many months to reach the entry point to Mount Sharp,” said Jennifer Trosper, Curiosity Deputy Project Manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “Now that we’ve made it, we’ll be adjusting the operations style from a priority on driving to a priority on conducting the investigations needed at each layer of the mountain.”

Images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) helped Curiosity’s team identify mesas near Pahrump Hills, which include an exposed section of the Murray formation. The team plans to drill and sample material for further analysis.

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Sep 172014
 
SpaceX Dragon 2 docking, artist's concept.
SpaceX Dragon 2 docking, artist's concept.

SpaceX Dragon 2 docking, artist’s concept.

by Nur Hussein, staff writer

NASA has awarded a total of $6.8 billion in grants to two private American companies, Boeing and SpaceX, for further developing spacecraft that will serve NASA’s space-faring needs in future. Boeing is getting $4.2 billion, and SpaceX is getting $2.6 billion. There were four companies competing for the contracts, the two who lost out were Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada.

Since the retirement of the NASA Shuttle fleet, American astronauts have been hitching rides on Russian rockets as the U.S. pays for ferry service between Earth and the International Space Station. The costs aren’t cheap: $71 million per seat and the costs will end up snowballing in the long run. Also, NASA is probably not too keen to be dependent on Russia for its space transport, as political tensions in the region make for unpredictability in planning.

Both Boeing and SpaceX have developed their own spaceflight capabilities in recent years. Boeing’s offering is called the CST-100, and SpaceX’s ship is the called Dragon. While there is no fixed timetable for the future of commercial spaceflight outsourcing, we are looking at American rockets launching as soon as 2017, when existing contracts with Russia are set to expire. Both companies will have to have their technologies certified by NASA to ensure the crafts are safe and reliable.

While sci-fi authors have dreamed up futures where commercial spaceflight is a commonplace business, outsourcing technology to companies is a new move for government-owned NASA which had always used its own vehicles. With multiple companies now competing for a slice of the space-faring cake, we hope we can get more resources thrown at spaceflight and accelerate our journey to the stars.

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Sep 142014
 
Mapping the route to climb the flanks of Mount Sharp in the Gale Crater (Photo taken from the NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

From Maps to More Science

by Cat Ellen, contributing writer

Mapping the route to climb the flanks of Mount Sharp in the Gale Crater (Photo taken from the NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Mapping the route to climb the flanks of Mount Sharp in the Gale Crater (Photo taken from the NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Forget the “Prime Directive,” it’s celebration for the “Prime Destination!” Achievement unlocked: NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover has arrived at Mount Sharp. After two years of travel on Mars, Curiosity heads into a phase of focused laboratory work.

“Curiosity now will begin a new chapter from an already outstanding introduction to the world,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “After a historic and innovative landing along with its successful science discoveries, the scientific sequel is upon us.”

Travel on Mars has not been without its surprises. When it was discovered that sharp rocks poked holes in four of Curiosity’s six wheels at a much faster rate of wear and tear than initially planned, the rover’s team of scientists and engineers used imagery from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to adjust travel routes. Milder terrain solved some of the wheel issues, although some valley floors had to be avoided where the thicker sand caused greater slippage. And there’s no Mars Rover Assistance tow service that can be called out to rescue Curiosity.

Shifting gears from driving plans to scientific investigations has the Rover team examining various layers in the mountain to determine whether ancient Mars had the environment favorable to support life, even if it may have just been for microbes.

The view from NASA's Mars Curiosity rover looking out at "Amargosa Valley" at the base of Mount Sharp (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

The view from NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover looking out at “Amargosa Valley” at the base of Mount Sharp (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

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Sep 062014
 

by Cat Ellen, contributing writer

Headed for the Hills

Curiosity, just out for a little drive. And Science. (photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Curiosity, just out for a little drive. And Science. (photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Occasionally, rovers on a mission may not have time to tell a full story about their travels but have just enough time to post a picture to social media. This week, NASA’s Curiosity rover posted this simple picture on Twitter and Facebook.

“Head for the hills! I’m driving towards these hills on Mars to do geology work and also search for clouds.”

Invitation to Participate

NASA extended an invitation to its social media followers to apply for a one-day NASA Social coming up in October. Up to 50 participants will be hosted at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, on Monday, October 13, 2014.

Keep calm and do a science: Meet the teams helping Mars spacecraft dodge (and study!) the coming Mars comet. (artist rendition, credit NASA/JPL)

Keep calm and do a science: Meet the teams helping Mars spacecraft dodge (and study!) the coming Mars comet. (artist rendition, credit NASA/JPL)

The NASA Social has been organized to highlight a couple of comet events through the end of the year. Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring flies by Mars on October 19 and the Rosetta mission from the European Space Agency plans to land the Philae probe on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in November. Participants will interact with scientists and engineers inside the “mission control” of NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN).

NASA’s Social falls just after the annual JPL Open House scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, October 11 and 12. This free public event includes exhibits, tours, and demonstrations around this years theme “Welcome to Our Universe.”

Complete your application for a NASA Social Media Credential on the NASA.gov webite. Applications opened on Thursday, September 4 and close this Monday, September 8 at 5 PM Eastern (2 PM Pacific). Hurry to submit your application today!

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Aug 302014
 

by Cat Ellen, contributing writer

Computer memory housekeeping

Three month tour, ten years later and still working. The view from NASA's Mars rover Opportunity in August 2014. (Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Three month tour, ten years later and still working. The view from NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity in August 2014. (Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Ever been frustrated with a computer that just keeps rebooting? Software running slow or glitchy? Found it necessary to “wipe the cache” or (as many Windows users know) “reformat the drive” and start from scratch? These analogies might be slightly overkill, but even Martian rovers sometimes need the technician’s magic touch.

Computer resets have become increasingly frequent for NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity (Oppy, to friends on Twitter). The science team here on Earth plans to reformat Oppy’s flash memory to address the problems.

For the uninitiated, flash memory maintains information on equipment even when powered off. In everyday use on earth, you rely on flash memory to store music and pictures on your cell phones and cameras. And just like when sections of your carpet wear out from always walking in the same space, sections of flash memory can wear out from repetition. Reformatting finds the worn out cells, marks them to be avoided, and clears everything out to start fresh again.

“Worn-out cells in the flash memory are the leading suspect in causing these resets,” said John Callas of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, project manager for NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Project. “The flash reformatting is a low-risk process, as critical sequences and flight software are stored elsewhere in other non-volatile memory on the rover.”

Opportunity landed on Mars with twin rover Spirit ten years ago, in early 2004. Spirit logged six years of scientific exploration and Opportunity remains active even though the original mission was only planned for three months. Talk about some amazing tech support: JPL’s rover team continues to work with Oppy from 125 million miles away. Go, team!

Science from up above

Digital Terrain Model (DTM) images of terraced craters on Mars (image credit: Ali Bramson)

Digital Terrain Model (DTM) images of terraced craters on Mars (image credit: Ali Bramson) 

Off the Mars surface, high overhead in the Martian skies, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) delights researchers from many institutions, not just NASA. Over at the Department of Planetary Sciences at the University of Arizona, graduate student Ali Bramson studies ice under the surface of Mars. This week, she shared some of her observations in Martian Diaries blogs from MRO.

“Imagine if there was a layer of ice as tall as a 13-story building underneath the entire state of Texas. We have found a layer of ice that big under a region of Mars called Arcadia Planitia,” Bramson writes. “I am using impact crater measurements to learn more … [and] studying the radar signals that bounce off the ice and go back to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) spacecraft’s SHARAD (Shallow Radar) instrument. The radar measurements are telling us about the composition of the ice.”

Layers of ice, rock and ice, or just rock react differently when impacted by meteors, asteroids, or other debris. Many of the impact craters on Mars appear to have terraced structures indicating layers with different compositions. Equipment on the Orbiter can take stereo images of these craters, allowing scientists to better measure the depths of the layers. These visual measurements are combined with radar measurements that bounce different through ice than off the surface of rock.

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