Jan 262015
 
Asteroid2004BL86

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.

Asteroid2004BL86

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.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI

“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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Dec 072014
 
View from Orion's unpiloted flight test (Image Credit: NASA Television)

Next Chapter to Mars: Orion

Science, Technology, and Exploration all feed NASA's Journey to Mars efforts (Image Credit: NASA)

Science, Technology, and Exploration all feed NASA’s Journey to Mars efforts (Image Credit: NASA)

Probably one of the most exciting events for Mars this week didn’t happen on Mars. The successful launch, orbit, and splashdown landing of NASA’s Orion spacecraft secured the next new step toward sending manned crews on the Journey to Mars. Decades have gone by since the golden age of space exploration when, in its heyday, there were launches nearly every few months in the Apollo era. And when the shuttles were retired, space exploration hit a lull that seemed to worry and disappoint some people. Orion’s Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1), conducted on December 5, 2014, re-establishes a space program that can leave Earth’s orbit.

“We as a species are meant to press humanity further into the solar system and this is a first step,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Directorate. “What a tremendous team effort.”

Significant features of the Orion project tested very successfully on this first unmanned flight. The crew capsule withstood the pressures of launch, assent, two passes through the Van Allen belts annd their high radiation, plus surviving the enormous heat generated upon return through the atmosphere and the pressures of the splash down.

Engineers now have their hands full with testing data and sensor readings to evaluate the flight. The results will better inform the teams preparing for the next flight, Exploration Mission-1, which is scheduled to go around the moon.

If you missed the launch, here are some of the highlights.

 

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Dec 052014
 
A conceptual model of the Team Ares radiation experiment.
Orion Exploration Design Challenge Winning Team from Hampton,Va NASA’s Administrator, Charles Bolden (left), President/CEO of Lockheed Martin, Marillyn Hewson (right), and astronaut Rex Walheim (back row) pose for a group photo with the winning high school team in the Exploration Design Challenge. Team ARES from the Governors School for Science and Technology in Hampton, Va. won the challenge with their radiation shield design, which was built and flown aboard the Orion/EFT-1. Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

Orion Exploration Design Challenge Winning Team from Hampton,Va
NASA’s Administrator, Charles Bolden (left), President/CEO of Lockheed Martin, Marillyn Hewson (right), and astronaut Rex Walheim (back row) pose for a group photo with the winning high school team in the Exploration Design Challenge. Team ARES from the Governors School for Science and Technology in Hampton, Va. won the challenge with their radiation shield design, which was built and flown aboard the Orion/EFT-1. Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

by Gene Turnbow, Station Manager

The test flight of the unmanned Orion spacecraft has just successfully splashed down at this writing. Eventually Orion’s crew module will contain living, breathing astronauts, so one of the things being tested is how well that module will protect its occupants from the intense radiation in the Van Allen belt that surrounds the Earth.

Starting in March of 2013, a year-long competition called the Exploration Design Challenge was begun among high schools (there were also competitions for middle schools and elementary schools) around the world to engage students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) by inviting them  help tackle one of the most significant dangers of human space flight: radiation exposure.

Evaluators from NASA, Lockheed Martin, and the National Institute of Aerospace have selected Team ARES from the Governor’s School for Science and Technology in Hampton, Virginia, as the winner of the Exploration Design Challenge. The winner was chosen from a group of five finalist teams announced in March 2014.

“This is a great day for Team ARES. You have done a remarkable job,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, who helped announce the winning team. “I really want to congratulate all five of our finalists. You are outstanding examples of the power of American innovation. Your passion for discovery and the creative ideas you have brought forward have made us think and have helped us take a fresh look at a very challenging problem on our Path to Mars.”

Team ARES produced a design that received the highest radiation protection score during an online simulation of radiation exposure. They also did additional research on their own, provided extra information about the materials their design uses and estimated the cost for their experiment. Their test module, a small cube mounted inside the Orion spacecraft crew module, contains a set of radiation sensors. These will show how effective their idea for radiation shielding is, compared to the computer simulation. Team ARES was brought to Kennedy Space Center in Florida by Lockheed Martin, the makers of the Orion spacecraft, so that they could watch their experiment launch into space.

A conceptual model of the Team Ares radiation experiment.

A conceptual model of the Team Ares radiation experiment.

The first manned use of the Orion spacecraft is planned to take a new team of astronauts to the Moon. After that, they hope to take it to Mars. Limiting factors for the longer journey to Mars are not only the intense radiation they will encounter when they reach Mars, due to its nearly complete lack of a protective magnetosphere, but the design of the crew module itself. The trip to the Red Planet will take something around six months, one way. That’s a long time to be sitting in one place without even being able to stand up and stretch your legs.

Of the entire launch vehicle, only the crew module will be returning to Earth, to splash down in the Pacific Ocean for recovery. See our main article on Orion’s launch for the full report.

Headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland, Lockheed Martin is a global security and aerospace company that employs approximately 113,000 people worldwide and is principally engaged in the research, design, development, manufacture, integration and sustainment of advanced technology systems, products and services.

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