Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Maxar Technologies' MDA to design lunar rover concept for Canadian Space Agency

MDA has been selected by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) to provide a conceptual design of a lunar rover for science exploration and to prepare for human missions on the lunar surface. As part of MDA's concept, the rover would be engineered to travel up to 600 km over its lifetime in the harsh lunar environment via tele-robotic control and advanced autonomous mode, relying on artificial intelligence controlled from the proposed Lunar Gateway and from Earth. The proposed lunar rover concept would conduct expeditions on the far side of the moon near the South Pole region using a robotic arm and a sample capture system to collect samples, carrying a suite of science instruments up to 120 kg. The rover would then return to its lander and deposit the samples into a small rocket known as an ascent vehicle that will carry them to the Gateway. The samples would later be returned to Earth for analysis to improve our understanding of the moon and the early formation of our solar system to prepare for extended human presence beyond Low Earth Orbit. Advancing science is a major goal of this mission and for the rover, the sample selection could utilize MDA-developed sensors for sample selection. "MDA's innovative robotic solutions have been expanding our understanding of space since the 1980s, with the space shuttles' Canadarms and the International Space Station's Mobile Servicing System, comprised of Canadarm2, a highly dexterous two-armed robotic arm known as "Dextre" and the Mobile Base System," said Mike Greenley, group president of MDA.

"The development of the Lunar Gateway and lunar rover are critical next steps in deep space exploration, and MDA is proud to support these initiatives and advance Canada's leading position in space."

The rover concept design forms part of a larger study that includes contributions from the European Space Agency, the Japanese Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, with the objective of preparing technologies and operations for landing astronauts on the surface as early as the late 2020s. In preparation for these landings, this study will define a plan to land the rover by the mid-2020 timeframe.

Key challenges for the rover include operating during the hot lunar day and cold lunar night, each of which lasts approximately 14 consecutive Earth days. The lunar dust is unlike the dirt and soil found anywhere on Earth and affects moving parts and optical coatings and can be problematic for navigation.

MDA will leverage experience gained in development of elements of the ExoMars rover, scheduled to launch in 2020, in development of the Lunar rover.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Large millimeter telescope observes powerful molecular wind in an active spiral galaxy

An international team of astrophysicists using the Large Millimeter Telescope (LMT) in central Mexico has detected an unexpected and powerful outflow of molecular gas in a distant active galaxy similar to the Milky Way. The galaxy is 800 million light years from Earth. The findings are published in the current edition of Astrophysical Journal Letters. The research team includes Min S. Yun, a professor of astronomy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and colleagues from Mexico's Instituto Nacional de Astrofisica, Optica y Electronica (INAOE), the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and institutions in Italy, Belgium, Finland, the Netherlands, Germany and Spain. Yun says that the LMT, which is operated jointly by UMass Amherst and INAOE, is uniquely suited for detecting a faint, broad line like this observational result and is designed specifically for this type of experiment. "Understanding how frequently the central supermassive black hole disrupts its host galaxy through a yet unknown energetic feedback process is one of the most important unanswered questions in the study of galaxy evolution today, and the LMT with its full 50-meter surface that was just completed, should yield more insights in the coming observing seasons," he says. Anna Lia Longinotti of the INAOE, who led the research, says "The novelty of this result is that we are seeing feedback in a galaxy where this phenomenon is not expected. 

The other two galaxies where it was observed are more dust- and gas-rich, whereas this galaxy is a spiral type, therefore more similar to the Milky Way. This discovery opens the path to explore the possibility that active galactic nuclei (AGN) feedback can be produced also by less luminous objects with different characteristics."

About two years ago, thanks to X-ray data obtained by the European Space Agency satellite XMM-Newton, the presence of ultra-fast outflows of ionized, hot gas at sub-relativistic velocity was reported in this same object, called IRAS17020+4544. These winds are thought to originate in the accretion disk located around the supermassive black hole that powers luminous active galactic nuclei (quasars).

The activity of this type of galaxy is related to the energy released by accretion processes that take place close to the black hole. Despite hosting an active nucleus, this galaxy is considerably less luminous when compared to quasars.

The data obtained with the LMT spectrograph Redshift Search Receiver (RSR), developed at UMass Amherst, reveal that such X-ray ultra-fast outflows co-exist with molecular outflow of cold and dense gas that emits in millimeter frequencies, according to a paper recently published in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Longinotti explains that the gas detected by the LMT is located within the same host galaxy at a large distance, 2,000 to 20,000 light years from the central black hole, whereas the X-ray fast wind is located much closer to the black hole in the heart of the active nucleus.

She highlighted that among the scientific merits in pursuing observations of AGN molecular gas, one is to corroborate the existence of a connection of accretion disk fast winds and large-scale outflows of molecular gas. "In this galaxy we already had evidence of a wind capable of producing feedback to the host galaxy.

Feedback processes may be the result of large ejection of mass and energy that has the effect of sweeping the galaxy and stripping the gas with which stars are formed. The gas entrained by the outflow travels outward and the galaxy is left without 'prime food' to form new stars. Eventually, the effect of the feedback is that the galaxy turns inefficient in forming stars and it becomes a passive galaxy," she says.

The accretion disk wind observed in X-ray light is launched with a certain amount of energy and force. "Our measurements seem to indicate that the molecular outflow conserves this initial energy while sweeping the galaxy, therefore we do see this connection, and it seems to indicate that the behavior of the black hole, which is responsible for launching the disk wind, has a profound effect on the gas distributed at a much larger scale within the host galaxy. In conclusion, this connection regulates star formation activity and galaxy evolution.

Longinotti says this phenomenon was not expected in objects that are not quasars nor Ultra Luminous Infrared Galaxies, both characterized by having a large amount of molecular gas.

"We knew that LMT technical features routinely allow observation of molecular gas in galaxies but in this particular one we could determine the presence of the molecular outflow, and measure its velocity. Although not as high as those found for the X-ray wind, the molecular outflow velocity ranges between 700 and 1000 km/s, therefore well in excess to the cold gas typically observed in co-rotation in several galaxies."

INAOE's Olga Vega who also participated in the project, highlighted that the LMT is currently the best single-dish telescope to carry out this type of research. She says, to date, the connection of these winds was detected only in three objects, and the other two are 10 times more luminous than this one. Vega says now that the LMT is operating with 50 meters of diameter and new instrumentation is being installed, it is an ideal observatory to search and detect these outflows in other galaxies.

"If the aim is to perform a deeper study, it is necessary to go to interferometry as this technique allows dimensions, spatial distribution and geometry of the molecular outflows to be revealed. Nonetheless, the LMT will have a fundamental role to discover new molecular outflows and thus, to unveil the nature of cosmic feedback and its role in galaxy evolution."

Longinotti says this particular galaxy will be the subject of further multi-wavelength studies making it the first time that such a wide and complete campaign is carried out to advance understanding of the outflow phenomenon.

Sci-Fi inspired tractor beam helps researchers boldly go where none have gone before

A light driven energy trap similar to tractor beams used to capture spaceships in science fiction movies such as Star Trek and Star Wars has been developed by researchers in South Australia. The discovery is opening the way for new quantum experiments that may lead to new secure communications or advanced sensing technologies. University of Adelaide researchers have created the infrared tractor beam - or light-driven energy trap - for atoms. But rather than sucking spaceships into a space station, their tractor beam pulls atoms into a microscopic hole at the centre of a special optical fibre. Published in the journal Physical Review Applied, the researchers from the University's Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensing (IPAS) say this is the first time that scientists have been able to demonstrate a highly efficient 'waveguide trap'. The tractor beam works by the infrared light interacting with the atoms to create a change in energy that drives the atoms to the most intense part of the light beam. PhD student Ashby Hilton developed the technology and said that although tractor beams in movies like Star Trek and Star Wars are green or blue, in this case the trap is made of invisible infrared light. "The beam grabs hold of atoms that are floating in a chamber that is almost completely emptied of gas - a little sample of outer space on Earth," he said. "Every atom that enters the tractor beam is pulled into the fibre - there is no escape." Once sucked into the interior of the optical fibre the atoms can be held for long periods of time.

"Our experiments show that we can very precisely control light to produce exactly the right conditions to control atoms."

Lead researcher Dr Philip Light said the technology enabled the possibility of conducting quantum experiments on the trapped atoms.

"Our first experiments intend to use these stored atoms as elements of a quantum memory," he said.

"We hope that our work may eventually form part of absolutely secure communications channel that is of obvious high interest to defence, intelligence and industry."

The researchers are now moving onto the next stage in which the tractor beam is formed from a hollow cone of light rather than a solid beam of light. In this new configuration the atoms will be held at the centre of the light cone where it is perfectly dark.

"This is an extremely powerful idea - we can move and manipulate the atoms, but are able to shield the atoms from the disruptive effect of intense light," said Dr Light.

The researchers have essentially created a quantum funnel which allows them to guide and trap atoms for longer without disrupting their delicate quantum state.

Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensing Director Professor Andre Luiten said the researchers were manipulating and measuring individual atoms and molecules to sense the world around them.

"This new era of quantum sensing is opening up diverse new possibilities from attempting to detect disease through finding particular molecules in the breath, to assisting miners and defence by detecting anomalous magnetic fields associated with mineral deposits or covert submarine activity," Professor Luiten said.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Japan launches environment monitoring satellite

Japan's space agency on Monday launched a rocket carrying a satellite that will monitor greenhouse gases, as well as the first satellite built entirely in the United Arab Emirates. The nation's H-IIA rocket lifted off Monday afternoon at 1:08 pm (0308 GMT) from the Tanegashima Space Centre, according to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). About 16 minutes later, it sent a Japanese satellite nicknamed Ibuki-2 into orbit. The satellite is officially named GOSAT-2, short for "greenhouse gases observing satellite-2", and is intended to provide data that will help Japan create and publish "emission inventories" of the CO2 output of various countries, as outlined in the Paris climate accord. The satellite will also make precision observations of methane and other gases.The Japanese rocket also released "KhalifaSat", the first satellite built entirely in the UAE by local engineers. "The launch of KhalifaSat is an unprecedented Emirati achievement," Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed said in a tweet."Our dreams to embrace space have become a reality." Five other smaller satellites are scheduled to be released from the Japanese rocket.

Japan's space agency and its private partner Mitsubishi Heavy Industries see the international satellite launch market as a possible revenue stream.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Some planetary systems just aren't into heavy metal

Small planetary systems with multiple planets are not fans of heavy metal - think iron, not Iron Maiden - according to a new Yale University study. Researchers at Yale and the Flatiron Institute have discovered that compact, multiple-planet systems are more likely to form around stars that have lower amounts of heavy elements than our own Sun. This runs counter to a good deal of current research, which has focused on stars with higher metallicity. The research team looked at 700 stars and their surrounding planets for the study, which appears in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. The researchers considered any element heavier than helium - including iron, silicon, magnesium, and carbon - as a heavy metal. "We used iron as a proxy," said lead author John Michael Brewer, a postdoctoral researcher at Yale who works with astronomy professor Debra Fischer. "These are all elements that make up the rocks in small, rocky planets." Brewer said an abundance of compact, multi-planet systems around low-metallicity stars suggests several things. First, he said, it may indicate that there are many more of these systems than previously assumed. Until recently, research instruments have not had the necessary precision to detect smaller planets and instead focused on detecting larger planets. Now, with the advent of technology such as the Extreme Precision Spectrometer (EXPRES) developed by Fischer's team at Yale, researchers will be able to find smaller planets.

In addition, Brewer said, the new study suggests that small planetary systems may be the earliest type of planetary system, making them an ideal place to search for life on other planets. "Low-metallicity stars have been around a lot longer," Brewer said. "That's where we'll find the first planets that formed."

Fischer, who is a co-author of the study, demonstrated in 2005 that higher metallicity in stars increased the probability of forming large, Jupiter-like planets. This provided strong support to the core-accretion model for gas giant planet formation and established this as the leading mechanism for planet formation.

Understanding the formation of smaller planets has been more elusive.

"Our surprising result, that compact systems of multiple, small planets are more likely around lower metallicity stars suggests a new, important clue in understanding the most common type of planetary system in our galaxy," said co-author Songhu Wang, a 51 Pegasi b Fellow at Yale.

Another tantalizing possibility to explore, according to the researchers, is the connection between iron and silicon in the birth of planets. The new study shows a high silicon-to-iron ratio in stars with lower metallicity.

"Silicon could be the secret ingredient," Fischer said. "The ratio of silicon to iron is acting as a thermostat for planet formation. As the ratio increases, nature is dialing up the formation of small, rocky planets."

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Earth's Dust Cloud Satellites Confirmed

A team of Hungarian astronomers and physicists may have confirmed two elusive clouds of dust, in semi-stable points just 400,000 kilometres from Earth. The clouds, first reported by and named for Polish astronomer Kazimierz Kordylewski in 1961, are exceptionally faint, so their existence is controversial. The new work appears in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The Earth-Moon system has five points of stability where gravitational forces maintain the relative position of objects located there. Two of these so-called Lagrange points, L4 and L5, form an equal-sided triangle with the Earth and Moon, and move around the Earth as the Moon moves along its orbit. L4 and L5 are not completely stable, as they are disturbed by the gravitational pull of the Sun. Nonetheless they are thought to be locations where interplanetary dust might collect, at least temporarily. Kordylewski observed two nearby clusters of dust at L5 in 1961, with various reports since then, but their extreme faintness makes them difficult to detect, and many scientists doubted their existence. In a paper earlier this year the Hungarian team, led by Gabor Horvath of Eotvos Lorand University, modeled the Kordylewski clouds to assess how they form and how they might be detected.

The researchers were interested in their appearance using polarising filters, which transmit light with a particular direction of oscillation, similar to those found on some types of sunglasses. Scattered or reflected light is always more or less polarised, depending on the angle of scattering or reflection.

They then set out to find the dust clouds. With a linearly polarising filter system attached to a camera lens and CCD detector at Sliz-Balogh's private observatory in Hungary (Badacsonytordemic), the scientists took exposures of the purported location of the Kordylewski cloud at the L5 point.

The images they obtained show polarised light reflected from dust, extending well outside the field of view of the camera lens. The observed pattern matches predictions made by the same group of researchers in an earlier paper and is consistent with the earliest observations of the Kordylewski clouds six decades ago.

Horvath's group were able to rule out optical artefacts and other effects, meaning that the presence of the dust cloud is confirmed.

Judit Sliz-Balogh comments on their discovery: "The Kordylewski clouds are two of the toughest objects to find, and though they are as close to Earth as the Moon are largely overlooked by researchers in astronomy. It is intriguing to confirm that our planet has dusty pseudo-satellites in orbit alongside our lunar neighbour."

Given their stability, the L4 and L5 points are seen as potential sites for orbiting space probes, and as transfer stations for missions exploring the wider solar system. There are also proposals to store pollutants at the two points.

Future research will look at L4 and L5, and the associated Kordylewski clouds, to understand how stable they really are, and whether their dust presents any kind of threat to equipment and future astronauts alike. References:

Friday, October 26, 2018

Mars Express keeps an eye on curious cloud

Since 13 September, ESA's Mars Express has been observing the evolution of an elongated cloud formation hovering in the vicinity of the 20 km-high Arsia Mons volcano, close to the planet's equator. In spite of its location, this atmospheric feature is not linked to volcanic activity but is rather a water ice cloud driven by the influence of the volcano's leeward slope on the air flow - something that scientists call an orographic or lee cloud - and a regular phenomenon in this region. The cloud can be seen in this view taken on 10 October by the Visual Monitoring Camera (VMC) on Mars Express - which has imaged it hundreds of times over the past few weeks - as the white, elongated feature extending 1500 km westward of Arsia Mons. As a comparison, the cone-shaped volcano has a diameter of about 250 km; a view of the region with labels is provided here. Mars just experienced its northern hemisphere winter solstice on 16 October. In the months leading up to the solstice, most cloud activity disappears over big volcanoes like Arsia Mons; its summit is covered with clouds throughout the rest of the martian year. However, a seasonally recurrent water ice cloud, like the one shown in this image, is known to form along the southwest flank of this volcano - it was previously observed by Mars Express and other missions in 2009, 2012 and 2015. The cloud's appearance varies throughout the martian day, growing in length during local morning downwind of the volcano, almost parallel to the equator, and reaching such an impressive size that could make it visible even to telescopes on Earth.

The formation of water ice clouds is sensitive to the amount of dust present in the atmosphere. These images, obtained after the major dust storm that engulfed the entire planet in June and July, will provide important information on the effect of dust on the cloud development and on its variability throughout the year.

The elongated cloud hovering near Arsia Mons this year was also observed with the visible and near-infrared mapping spectrometer, OMEGA, and the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) on Mars Express, providing scientists with a variety of different data to study this phenomenon.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

SwRI team makes breakthroughs studying Pluto orbiter mission

A Southwest Research Institute team using internal research funds has made several discoveries that expand the range and value of a future Pluto orbiter mission. The breakthroughs define a fuel-saving orbital tour and demonstrate that an orbiter can continue exploration in the Kuiper Belt after surveying Pluto. These and other results from the study will be reported this week at a workshop on future Pluto and Kuiper Belt exploration at the American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Sciences meeting in Knoxville, Tennessee. Associate Vice President and planetary scientist Dr. Alan Stern leads the SwRI study. The team first discovered how numerous key scientific objectives can be met using gravity assists from Pluto's giant satellite, Charon, rather than propellant, allowing the orbiter to change its orbit repeatedly to investigate various aspects of Pluto, its atmosphere, its five moons, and its solar wind interactions for up to several years. The second achievement demonstrates that, upon completing its science objectives at Pluto, the orbiter can then use Charon's gravity to escape the system without using fuel, slinging the spacecraft into the Kuiper Belt to use the same electric propulsion system it used to enter Pluto orbit to then explore other dwarf planets and smaller Kuiper Belt bodies.

"This is groundbreaking," said Stern. "Previously, NASA and the planetary science community thought the next step in Kuiper Belt exploration would be to choose between 'going deep' in the study of Pluto and its moons or 'going broad' by examining smaller Kuiper Belt objects and another dwarf planet for comparison to Pluto. The planetary science community debated which was the right next step. Our studies show you can do both in a single mission: it's a game changer."

The team also includes spaceflight engineer and mission designer Dr. Mark Tapley and planetary scientist Dr. Amanda Zangari, as well as project manager John Scherrer and software lead Tiffany Finley, all from SwRI's Space Science and Engineering Division.

Finley designed the Pluto orbital tour around dozens of Charon gravity assist maneuvers. "This tour is far from optimized, yet it is capable of making five or more flybys of each of Pluto's four small moons while examining Pluto's polar and equatorial regions using plane changes. The plan also allows for an extensive up-close encounter with Charon before dipping into Pluto's atmosphere for sampling before the craft uses Charon one last time to escape into the Kuiper Belt for new assignments," she said.

Tapley's work demonstrated that an electric propulsion system similar to that used by NASA's Dawn mission could power the orbiter to allow it to fly to other known Kuiper Belt objects, including any one of a number of dwarf planets. "In fact, we found it is even possible to reach and then enter into orbit around a second dwarf planet in the Kuiper Belt after studying Pluto!" said Tapley.

In addition, Zangari led a separate study that examined missions to the 45 largest Kuiper Belt objects and dwarf planets, with launches possible between 2025 and 2040. Her work outlined possible missions of 25 years or less to dwarf planets Eris and Sedna via Jupiter-Neptune swingbys, Quaoar, Makemake, Haumea via Jupiter-Saturn swingbys, and Varuna after a Jupiter-Uranus flyby. A paper detailing this work has been accepted by the Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets.

"Who would have thought that a single mission using already available electric propulsion engines could do all this?" said Stern. "Now that our team has shown that the planetary science community doesn't have to choose between a Pluto orbiter or flybys of other bodies in the Kuiper Belt, but can have both, I call this combined mission the 'gold standard' for future Pluto and Kuiper Belt exploration."

The team will spend the next few months publishing more of their findings and determining the spacecraft system attributes needed to accomplish the "gold standard" Pluto orbiter-Kuiper Belt explorer mission.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Europa plume sites lack expected heat signatures

The study of two potential plume sites on Jupiter's moon Europa has shown a lack of expected hotspot signatures, unlike Enceladus where plumes have a very clear and obvious temperature signature, research by Planetary Science Institute Senior Scientist Julie Rathbun shows. "We searched through the available Galileo thermal data at the locations proposed as the sites of potential plumes. Reanalysis of temperature data from the Galileo mission does not show anything special in the locations where plumes have possibly been observed. There are no hotspot signatures at either of the sites," Rathbun said. "This is surprising because the Enceladus plumes have a clear thermal signature at their site of origin, so this suggests that either the Europa plumes are very different, or the plumes are only occasional, or that they don't exist, or that their thermal signature is too small to have been detected by current data." Plumes are jets of gas that are sent upward from a planet's surface, similar to Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park. For the gas to be shot upward, an energy source is needed. Generally, that energy source will also heat the surface around the plume source, like we see in Yellowstone with hotspots at the geysers and hot springs nearby. This is also what is seen on Enceladus, a hot region where the plumes erupt from on Enceladus' surface. The hot spots at Yellowstone and Enceladus are unmistakable and readily observed. The lack of a hotspot at Europa suggests the hotspots there are very different, if they exist at all.

Rathbun's findings, titled "A Closer Look at Galileo Thermal Data from Possible Plume Sources Near Pwyll, Europa," were presented at a press conference at the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society 50th annual meeting in Knoxville, Tenn.

Rathbun's work follows up on earlier observations that suggested a plume originating from an area north of Pwyll on Europa, and reanalysis of Galileo magnetometer and plasma data also suggest a plume source about 1,000 kilometers northeast of the first site.

Rathbun's work was funded in part by a subcontract to PSI from Arizona State University from NASA's E-Themis (Europa Thermal Emission Imaging System) mission.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

US Air Force's X-37B space plane marks 400 days in orbit

The US Air Force's unmanned X-37B space plane has passed its 400-day mark, inching its way toward setting a new flight duration record for the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) mission. The spacecraft, the fifth of its kind, was initially rocketed into orbit on September 7, 2017, aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, according to All previous OTV missions established new flight records, with the fourth spacecraft spending 718 days in orbit. Though details of the space plane are kept on a need-to-know basis by officials, it has been reported that the craft is carrying in its payload an Advanced Structurally-Embedded Thermal Spreader. In August, the space plane was spotted by Marco Langbroek, a Netherlands-based satellite tracker. Langbroek previously told that X-37B was flying at a very low altitude, somewhere between 193 and 202 miles up. "Basically, only one type of object fits this: X-37B," he said of the craft he observed. "Previous X-37B missions we tracked also orbited at such very low altitudes. The object also has a similar brightness to previous OTV missions." Langbroek works alongside a small group that tracks the plane's path.

Although it's unclear where the OTV-5 will land once its mission comes to a close, website Space Flight Insider reported that it's likely to land at the Shuttle Landing Facility in Florida, the same location where OTV-4 touched down in May 2017.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Rocket Lab selects Wallops Flight Facility for US launch site

US orbital launch provider Rocket Lab has confirmed it will build its first US launch pad for the Electron rocket at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, USA. The site will be Rocket Lab's second dedicated launch complex and builds on Rocket Lab's existing ability to launch up to 120 times annually from the world's only private launch site, Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1, in New Zealand. Launch Complex 2 will be capable of supporting monthly orbital launches and is designed to serve US government and commercial missions. The site brings Rocket Lab's global launch availability across two launch complexes to more than 130 missions per year. The option to select from two launch sites adds an extra layer of flexibility for small satellite customers, offering an unmatched ability to rapidly deploy space-based assets with confidence and precision from a preferred location. "Accessing space should be simple, seamless and tailored to our customers' missions - from idea to orbit. Launching from a second pad builds on Rocket Lab's ability to offer the small satellite industry unmatched schedule and launch location flexibility," said Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck. "Having proven the Electron vehicle with a successful orbital launch this year, we're thrilled to expand on our ability to provide rapid, reliable and affordable access to orbit for small satellites.

"We've worked closely with the experienced and welcoming teams from Virginia Space and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops to design a pad and processes that will enable an agile and streamlined approach to small satellite launch on US soil," he added.

Rocket Lab will work with Virginia Space to construct dedicated pad infrastructure at the site, tailored to the Electron launch vehicle. In addition to the pad, Rocket Lab will develop a Launch Vehicle Integration and Assembly Facility in the Wallops Research Park to support the simultaneous integration of up to four Electron vehicles.

The facility will also contain a control room with connectivity to LC-2, as well as dedicated customer facilities. This new facility, combined with the purpose-built gantry located at LC-2, will provide significant and dedicated vehicle processing capability and flexibility to meet Rocket Lab's high launch cadence.

Through construction and day-to-day operations, Rocket Lab expects to create around 30 jobs immediately to directly support Launch Complex 2, with this number predicted to increase to approximately 100 as launch frequency increases. The development of Launch Complex 2 will also see Rocket Lab continue to expand Electron rocket production at the company's headquarters in Huntington Beach, California, to supply complete launch vehicles for government and commercial customers.

"We are honored to be Rocket Lab's selection for Launch Complex 2," stated Dale Nash, CEO and Executive Director of Virginia Space. "There is an incredible synergy between Virginia Space and Rocket Lab and we are proud to support their missions launching from U.S. soil. We'd like to thank Rocket Lab for their confidence in our team. Virginia Space and MARS employees are standing ready to do everything we can to ensure successful, safe and timely launch missions for Rocket Lab just as we do for every customer of the Spaceport."

Bill Wrobel, director of NASA Wallops, said, "Wallops has more than 70 years of experience successfully supporting missions using suborbital as well as small and medium-class orbital launch vehicles. We look forward, along with our partner Virginia Space and its Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, to supporting Rocket Lab's Electron missions and expanding commercial launch operations from Wallops."

Four spaceports were shortlisted to become Rocket Lab Launch Complex 2, including Cape Canaveral, Wallops Flight Facility, Pacific Spaceport Complex - Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base. Wallops Flight Facility made the final cut thanks to high flight frequency available from the site, as well as rapid construction timelines that will see Rocket Lab target the first Electron launch from US soil Q3 2019.

Rocket Lab continues to assess additional launch sites in the US and internationally to provide additional launch flexibility for small satellite customers. The company also maintains agreements with Cape Canaveral in Florida and Pacific Spaceport Complex Alaska to conduct launches from existing pads as required.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Mercury mission to explore origin of Solar System

Is Mercury's core liquid or solid, and why -- on the smallest planet in our solar system -- is it so big? What can the planet closest to the Sun tell us about how our solar system came into being? An unmanned European-Japanese space mission, dubbed BepiColombo, blasted off early Saturday morning from French Guiana, to probe these and other mysteries. "BepiColombo is coming like a white knight with better and more precise data," said Alain Doressoundiram, an astronomer at the Paris Observatory. "To understand how Earth was formed, we need to understand how all rocky planets formed," including Venus and Mars, he told AFP. "Mercury stands apart and we don't know why." First, however, the suite of instruments on board the Ariane 5 rocket will have to travel seven years and nine million kilometres (5.6 million miles) to reach their destination. In a statement after the launch, ArianeGroup said the satellite had successfully escaped Earth's gravity field and was beginning its long journey where it will reach speeds of up to 40,000 kilometres (25,000 miles) an hour. According to Pierre Bousquet, an engineer at France's National Centre for Space Research and head of the French team contributing to the mission, Mercury is "abnormally small," leading to speculation that it survived a massive collision in its youth.

"A huge crater visible on its surface could be the scar left over from that encounter," Bousquet told AFP. Finding out if this is true is on BepiColombo's "to do" list.

- Going hot and cold -

This scenario would explain why Mercury's core accounts for a whopping 55 percent of its mass, compared to 30 percent for Earth.

Mercury is also the only rocky planet orbiting the Sun beside our own to have a magnetic field.

Magnetic fields are generated by a liquid core but given its size, Mercury's should have grown cold and solid by now, as did Mars.

This anomaly might be due to some feature of the core's composition, something BepiColombo's instruments will measure with much greater precision than has been possible so far.

On its surface, Mercury is a planet of extremes, vacillating between hot days of about 430 degrees Celsius (more than 800 degrees Fahrenheit) to super-frosty nights of minus 180C (minus 290F).

Those days and nights last nearly three Earth months each.

Earlier missions have detected evidence of ice in the deepest recesses of the planet's polar craters.

Scientists speculate that this may have accumulated from comets crashing onto Mercury's surface.

"If the presence of ice is confirmed, it means that some of those water samples date back nearly to the origin of the solar system," Doressoundiram said.

- Lashed by solar winds -

Mercury is 58 million kilometres (36 million miles) from the Sun, nearly three times closer than Earth.

"The planet is whipped by solar winds," a constant torrent of ionised particles bombarding the surface at 500 kilometres per second, said Bousquet.

The scientists will be able to study the impact of these winds -- 10 times stronger than the ones hitting Earth's atmosphere -- on Mercury's magnetic field.

The BepiColombo mission will deploy two spacecraft. The Mercury Planet Orbiter, built by ESA, will investigate planet's surface and interior composition.

The Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter, made by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, will study the region of space around the planet that is influenced by its magnetic field.

The mission will also look for tectonic activity, and seek to understand why spectroscopic observations show no iron even if it is thought to be one of the planet's major component elements.

Compared to Mars, Venus, and Saturn, Mercury has barely been explored. Only two spacecraft have ever paid it a visit.

NASA's Mariner 10 did three flybys in 1974 and 1975, providing the first up-close images. More than 30 years later, NASA's Messenger did the same, before settling into orbit around Mercury in 2011.

The new mission is named after Giuseppe (Bepi) Colombo, a brilliant Italian mathematician and engineer who first understood the relationship between Mercury's rotation and orbit.

BepiColombo: Two Orbiters Head to Mercury

Known since Antiquity, Mercury has not yet delivered all its secrets. The international mission BepiColombo, scheduled to launch in the coming days, will study the planet's surface and compare its magnetic field with that of the Earth. Apart from Earth, Mercury is the only terrestrial planet with its own magnetic field, and yet it has only been visited by two space missions so far. This is indeed no easy task: because it is so close to the Sun, a spacecraft that misses the Swift Planet's weak gravitational field will inevitably plunge towards the solar surface, heated to a fiery 5,500 C. The European and Japanese space agencies, ESA and JAXA, have therefore worked in close collaboration to ensure BepiColombo's success. The mission, which comprises two orbiters, is scheduled to launch from Kourou, French Guiana, on the night of 19-20 October aboard an Ariane 5 rocket. After a seven-year journey and two flybys of Venus to benefit from a gravity assist, it will then survey Mercury's surface, atmosphere, and magnetosphere for two years, until 2027. In the 1970s, during a mission mainly focused on Venus, the American spacecraft Mariner 10 carried out three flybys of Mercury. One of the researchers involved was a professor at the University of Padua, Italy, called Giuseppe "Bepi" Colombo. The new spacecraft, the very first collaboration between ESA and JAXA, was named after him.

During the brief flybys, Mariner 10 was able to map half of Mercury and detect its magnetic field. Although it is much weaker than Earth's, it shows that the core of the planet is still active. Mariner 10 also confirmed the presence of an exosphere, an extremely tenuous atmosphere extending to very high altitudes.

Many years later, NASA launched the MESSENGER spacecraft. Placed in orbit around Mercury in March 2011, it crashed onto its surface in April 2015 when it ran out of fuel. It confirmed Mariner 10's observations and carried out further mapping and surveys of the surface. In particular, MESSENGER discovered evidence not only of volcanic activity and plate tectonics, but also of water ice: due to Mercury's extremely small axial tilt, no direct sunlight ever reaches the bottom of impact craters at the poles.

"Although MESSENGER carried a magnetometer and equipment to measure ions and energetic particles, the spacecraft's main mission was to survey the planet, its thin atmosphere and its surface," explains Dominique Delcourt, CNRS senior researcher and director of the LPC2E, in charge of the ion mass spectrometer on board BepiColombo's Japanese-designed orbiter, MMO. "In the presence of an intrinsic magnetic field, a magnetic cavity forms in space. This is called the magnetosphere, where many particle transport and acceleration processes take place."

One Mission, Two Orbiters

The BepiColombo mission comprises two orbiters carrying a science payload of nearly 100 kilograms. The first one, MPO (Bepi), will be dedicated to fully mapping the planet and studying its surface, internal structure, and exosphere, while the second, MMO (renamed Mio), will study its magnetic environment. Once at their destination, Mio will be released first, followed by Bepi, which will be placed into the lowest orbit ever achieved around Mercury.

Delcourt is upbeat: "This wider array of instruments will enable us to not only make new discoveries, but also review MESSENGER's data. By combining observations from both orbiters, we will also be in a position to perform what you might call stereoscopic measurements, something that was previously impossible."

The MMO orbiter will complete one rotation in just four seconds, enabling its instruments to point in all directions in space in search of neutral or ionized particles and electromagnetic waves. With a higher resolution than the MESSENGER instrument, the MSA ion spectrometer, developed at the LPP in collaboration with Japanese and German teams, can distinguish between heavy atoms only one atomic mass unit apart, such as potassium and calcium.

"These measurements will enable us to characterize ejected planetary material," says Delcourt. "As a result of meteorite bombardment and the solar wind, matter is ejected from the surface of Mercury. It can then be ionized by the Sun's ultraviolet radiation, and transported and accelerated around the planet." By studying these ions, it will be possible to analyze the composition of the surface without having to land on it.

A Model Magnetic Field

The magnetic field of Mercury is also an interesting generic model. Observing a magnetosphere that is smaller than ours should improve our understanding of the behavior of both neutral and ionized matter in space.

At such a short distance from the Sun, the density of the solar wind means that it has a greater impact on the planet. Another interesting factor is that Mercury's highly elliptical orbit causes significant cyclical variations in this exposure. As a result, BepiColombo's various scientific instruments are likely to be kept extremely busy. Six of them were designed with the participation of eight CNRS laboratories, including the LPC2E, the IAS, IPGP, the Research Institute in Astrophysics and Planetology (IRAP), the LAM], LATMOS, LESIA, and LPP.

At the LATMOS, Eric Quemerais is the lead scientist for PHEBUS. This ultraviolet spectrometer scans frequencies ranging from 50 to 320 nanometers, as well as a few lines used to detect calcium and potassium.

Analyzing Mercury's Surface

"We cover a wider spectral range that includes elements that were invisible to MESSENGER, such as helium, sulfur, ionized calcium, dihydrogen, etc.," Quemerais explains. "Thanks to a better signal-to-noise ratio, we also have an improved detection limit."

And whereas the American spectrometer was aligned with its probe, PHEBUS has an independent pointing mechanism. This allows it to choose its direction and provides better spatial and temporal coverage in orbit. "The exosphere gives an idea of the composition of Mercury's surface and of its outermost layers," Quemerais adds.

"For instance, we know that we will detect calcium and sodium, but we also expect to find magnesium, potassium, and oxygen, whose presence has not yet been systematically confirmed."

Another advantage of ultraviolet light is that it reflects off ice in a different way, which means that PHEBUS will be able to spot any water ice present. "This technique has already been employed on the Moon," says Quemerais. "We will use these changes in the amount of reflected light to map Mercury's two poles." Because of its specific orbit, selected so that it could survey the North Pole, MESSENGER was only able to map half the planet.

BepiColombo thus promises to provide the scientific community with a wealth of new data. In June 2020 in Orleans (central France), Delcourt will be organizing the next important conference dedicated to the Swift Planet.

"Of course, BepiColombo won't have reached its destination by then, but we will nonetheless be able to make use of MESSENGER's data," he explains. No doubt the scientists at that time will have their sights set on Venus, which Bepi Colombo will be about to swing past, propelled on its way to Mercury, its final destination.

Strofio will measure Mercury's exosphere on BepiColombo mission

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft will launch towards Mercury carrying a unique payload designed and built at Southwest Research Institute: an instrument called Strofio, which will study Mercury's tenuous exosphere. Part of the SERENA suite of instruments, Strofio's measurements will help us better understand the planet's surface and the history of the smallest rocky planet orbiting close to the Sun. "An exosphere is different from an atmosphere," said Dr. Stefano Livi, an Institute Scientist who leads the Strofio experiment, funded by NASA's Discovery Mission of Opportunity program. "Mercury doesn't have enough gravity to hold onto a proper atmosphere. Instead, it is surrounded by a thin, collision-free particle environment. Particles escape from Mercury's surface and briefly populate this exosphere before they return to the surface or drift away into interplanetary space." Mercury's proximity to the Sun makes it difficult to observe from Earth. It is also challenging for spacecraft to reach and to survive in the harsh environment. The BepiColombo mission includes two spacecraft - ESA's Mercury Planetary Orbiter and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's (JAXA) Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO) - that will study Mercury and help us learn about the formation of our solar system. From aboard MMO, Strofio will study how Mercury's exosphere and magnetosphere interact with each other and the planet's surface.

To understand these interactions, Strofio must identify the particles escaping from Mercury's surface. Because the exosphere is so thin, sampling particles is particularly challenging - in fact, the amount of particles is so sparse that the environment can't be easily mimicked in a typical vacuum chamber.

Scientists had to tackle this problem while developing and evaluating the super-sensitive Strofio instrument. Facilities at the University of Bern in Switzerland could create the necessary parameters and over a course of a few months allowed SwRI to analyze and demonstrate how the experiment will work in the Mercury environment.

"Strofio is novel in its ability to detect the rare, static particle population in Mercury's exosphere," Livi said. "We had to rethink and retool typical spectrometer designs."

Every particle captured is analyzed in a rotating field. When and where each particle gets to the detector determines the mass and composition. Strofio uses detection algorithm tools to enhance the instrument's sensitivity and improve identification. The instrument also had to meet strict mass and configuration limits associated with the spacecraft. The basketball-sized instrument weighs just over 7 pounds.

"Strofio is like one of my children off on its way to Mercury," Livi said. "It's exciting. I'm looking forward to 2025 when we'll 'see' the chemical particles coming off the planet. In addition to answering many questions, I'm also expecting some surprises."

BepiColombo is the first time ESA and JAXA have joined forces on a major space science mission. NASA frequently collaborates on ESA missions, including the Rosetta mission to Comet 67P and the JUpiter ICy moons Explorer (JUICE) mission, set to launch in 2022.

Friday, October 19, 2018

DigitalGlobe expands NASA partnership with sole-source Contract EO data

DigitalGlobe reports that NASA awarded the company a sole-source contract for high-resolution commercial electro-optical and synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellite imagery valued at up to $7 million. NASA-funded researchers will use this data to advance the agency's science and application development goals to understand and explore Earth, improve lives, and safeguard our future. This one-year blanket purchase agreement includes four option years. Under this contract, NASA is able to purchase a variety of DigitalGlobe data and services, including DigitalGlobe's 18-year, 100-petabyte imagery library, new imagery collected by its WorldView constellation, analytics on the company's Geospatial Big Data (GBDX) platform and RADARSAT-2 SAR imagery from MDA, another Maxar company. DigitalGlobe's WorldView constellation includes sensors that collect near infrared imagery, providing information about plant health; shortwave infrared imagery, which identifies materials, detects heat and sees through smoke; and an instrument known as CAVIS, which corrects inconsistencies caused by clouds, aerosols, water vapor, ice and snow. MDA's RADARSAT-2 satellite allows users to observe features and changes regardless of weather or time of day. NASA's Earth Science Division is evaluating how Maxar's DigitalGlobe and MDA commercial data can augment or supplement the data from its own aging fleet of orbiting Earth science missions.

DigitalGlobe's partnership with NASA extends back to 2001, during which time the two organizations have worked on Earth science research through the NASA Scientific Data Purchase Program and state-of-the-art Earth monitoring, imaging and mapping to help improve environmental decision-making among developing nations through the SERVIR Program.

"NASA and DigitalGlobe have a long history of working together and this contract is an innovative and efficient way for us to acquire, examine and evaluate DigitalGlobe's commercial Earth observation data," said Michael Freilich, director of NASA's Earth Science Division.

"As our very capable NASA research satellite fleet ages and more commercial satellites are launched, there are opportunities to leverage DigitalGlobe's strengths for even more complete climate data sets."

"DigitalGlobe's agile satellites with their multispectral and CAVIS sensors give NASA a unique view of Earth, allowing them to demonstrate how climate impacts the world," said Dr. Walter Scott, Maxar Chief Technology Officer.

"We're pleased NASA recognizes the value of our imagery and we look forward to continuing to provide the only native 30 cm and superspectral commercial satellite imagery to this U.S. government agency for the advancement of Earth science"

Thursday, October 18, 2018

The state of the early universe: The beginning was fluid

The particle physicists at the Niels Bohr Institute have obtained new results, working with the LHC, replacing the lead-ions, usually used for collisions, with Xenon-ions. Xenon is a "smaller" atom with fewer nucleons in its nucleus. When colliding ions, the scientists create a fireball that recreates the initial conditions of the universe at temperatures in excess of several thousand billion degrees. In contrast to the Universe, the lifetime of the droplets of QGP produced in the laboratory is ultra short, a fraction of a second (In technical terms, only about 10-22 seconds). Under these conditions the density of quarks and gluons is very large and a special state of matter is formed in which quarks and gluons are quasi-free (dubbed the strongly interacting QGP). The experiments reveal that the primordial matter, the instant before atoms formed, behaves like a liquid that can be described in terms of hydrodynamics. "One of the challenges we are facing is that, in heavy ion collisions, only the information of the final state of the many particles which are detected by the experiments are directly available - but we want to know what happened in the beginning of the collision and first few moments afterwards", You Zhou, Postdoc in the research group Experimental Subatomic Physics at the Niels Bohr Institute, explains.

"We have developed new and powerful tools to investigate the properties of the small droplet of QGP (early universe) that we create in the experiments".

They rely on studying the spatial distribution of the many thousands of particles that emerge from the collisions when the quarks and gluons have been trapped into the particles that the Universe consists of today. This reflects not only the initial geometry of the collision, but is sensitive to the properties of the QGP. It can be viewed as a hydrodynamical flow."

The transport properties of the Quark-Gluon Plasma will determine the final shape of the cloud of produced particles, after the collision, so this is our way of approaching the moment of QGP creation itself", You Zhou says.

Two main ingredients in the soup: Geometry and viscosity

The degree of anisotropic particle distribution - the fact that there are more particles in certain directions - reflects three main pieces of information: The first is, as mentioned, the initial geometry of the collision. The second is the conditions prevailing inside the colliding nucleons. The third is the shear viscosity of the Quark-Gluon Plasma itself.

Shear viscosity expresses the liquid's resistance to flow, a key physical property of the matter created. "It is one of the most important parameters to define the properties of the Quark-Gluon Plasma", You Zhou explains, " because it tells us how strongly the gluons bind the quarks together ".

The Xenon experiments yield vital information to challenge theories and models

"With the new Xenon collisions, we have put very tight constraints on the theoretical models that describe the outcome. No matter the initial conditions, Lead or Xenon, the theory must be able to describe them simultaneously. If certain properties of the viscosity of the quark gluon plasma are claimed, the model has to describe both sets of data at the same time, says You Zhou.

The possibilities of gaining more insight into the actual properties of the "primordial soup" are thus enhanced significantly with the new experiments. The team plans to collide other nuclear systems to further constrain the physics, but this will require significant development of new LHC beams.

Science is not a lonesome affair, far from it

"This is a collaborative effort within the large international ALICE Collaboration, consisting of more than 1800 researchers from 41 countries and 178 institutes". You Zhou emphasised.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Space Launch System Intertank completes functional testing

The intertank that will be flown on Exploration Mission-1 as part of NASA's new rocket, the Space Launch System, has completed its avionics functional testing, at the Michoud Assembly Center in New Orleans. The avionics, shown here inside the intertank structure, guide the vehicle and direct its power during flight. The intertank houses critical electronics that "talk to" the flight computers in the forward skirt. The intertank, forward skirt, two colossal fuel tanks and the engine section make up the massive core stage of the SLS rocket. The avionics units on the core stage work with the rocket's flight software to perform various functions during the first eight minutes of flight. Now that the intertank and forward skirt have passed avionics testing, they are ready to be mechanically joined and tested to verify they can successfully work together. To prepare for the first mission, engineers from Boeing, the prime contractor from Huntsville, Alabama, building the SLS core stage, are currently checking out the avionics systems for the entire rocket at the systems integration laboratory at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville.

They are verifying that the core stage avionics can use the flight software to operate and communicate with all the parts of the rocket as well as to Orion and to ground control computers.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Practising for BepiColombo's epic escape to Mercury

The international BepiColombo spacecraft will soon take flight, on a complex journey to the innermost planet of the Solar System, Mercury. Encompassing nine planetary flybys and travelling a total distance of nine billion km over a period of seven years, this will be one of the most intricate journeys ever flown by mission teams at ESA's ESOC mission control centre. With launch set for 20 October, flight controllers led by Operations Manager Elsa Montagnon are now busily preparing for the start of what will be Europe's first mission to Mercury - the smallest and least explored terrestrial planet of the Solar System. "Mission teams have spent months simulating BepiColombo's unique and complex journey," explains Elsa. "Taking turns, in 12-hour shifts, we have been practising the spacecraft's various launch and early mission processes and manoeuvres in real-time so we are prepared for every possible eventuality." BepiColombo is a joint mission between ESA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The mission comprises two science orbiters: ESA's Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) and JAXA's Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO). The ESA-built Mercury Transfer Module (MTM) will carry the orbiters to Mercury using a combination of solar electric propulsion and gravity assist flybys.

After its arrival at the planet of extremes in 2025, it will spend at least a year in orbit gathering data on Mercury's composition, density, magnetic field and exosphere, as well as probing the planet's interaction with solar wind.

Before the science begins, however, the multi-module spacecraft has to safely escape Earth, switch on, and receive instructions from mission control on where to go next.

A rocky road

Europe's space scientists have identified BepiColombo as one of the most challenging long-term planetary projects ever flown, as Mercury's proximity to the Sun makes it difficult for spacecraft to reach without being pulled into the star's enormous gravity.

"To get to Mercury without being subsumed by our giant star, the spacecraft will make a series of nine planetary flybys; circling Earth once, Venus twice, and Mercury itself six times," explains Andrea Accomazzo, Flight Director for BepiColombo.

"Unlike missions that take spacecraft to the outer regions of the Solar System, the Mercury Transfer Module will use the gravity of these inner planets, in combination with the thrust provided by electric propulsion, to slow the spacecraft down."

The Sun's huge gravity field acts as an enormous gravity 'well'. Getting a spacecraft to Mercury, and therefore close to the Sun, means dropping it into this steep well - the difficulty comes in ensuring the spacecraft ends up at Mercury and not at our gigantic star.

"The closer we get to the Sun the more we are constricted in our path," explains Frank Budnik from the Flight Dynamics team.

"For example, BepiColombo's large solar arrays need to be tilted at just the right angle to get enough sunlight to power the high-energy demand of the propulsion system and keeping the spacecraft running. At the same time, they mustn't get too much sunlight, or they could be beyond their limits."

"There is only a small corridor in which the solar arrays can be operated to fulfil both of these constraints."

BepiColombo will launch at 01:45 GMT (03:45 CEST) on 20 October, on board an Ariane 5 rocket. After the spacecraft separates from the rocket's 'upper stage', teams at ESOC will take control, sending commands to the spacecraft to get it into normal operational mode - a process that is expected to take about four days.

This period, dubbed the 'Launch and Early Orbit Phase' (LEOP), sees the control systems and instruments switched on, and their health and proper functioning assessed.

This is a risky time when the satellite is unusually vulnerable - not yet fully functional but still exposed to the hazards of space.

Simulating the scene

In preparation for this vital period, mission control teams have spent months simulating every expected scenario - the perfect LEOP, launch and separation of the satellite from the launcher, as well as a whole host of scenarios in which something goes wrong.

Establishing contact between the spacecraft and mission controllers has also been rehearsed.

Deep space ground stations across three continents will support this mission, with ESA's global antenna network maintaining links to and from BepiColombo throughout the journey.

"BepiColombo is one of the world's most ambitious interplanetary missions, and it could not be in safer hands," says Rolf Densing, Director of Operations at ESOC.

"With decades of collective experience and hundreds of hours of simulation practice, teams at ESA's mission control are ready to set out for the rocky planet."

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Chandra X-ray Observatory goes into safe mode

It's been a bad couple weeks in space. A week ago, technical difficulties forced engineers to put the Hubble Space Telescope's science mission on hold. Now, the Chandra X-ray Observatory is in safe mode, too. In a statement released on Friday, NASA confirmed Chandra, one of the most powerful telescopes in space, transitioned to safe mode earlier this week. During safe mode, the observatory's mirrors are pointed away from the sun and its solar panels are turned directly toward the sun. The satellite's most critical hardware is transferred to backup drives. "Analysis of available data indicates the transition to safe mode was normal behavior for such an event," according to NASA. "All systems functioned as expected and the scientific instruments are safe." Engineers are still working to determine why Chandra went into safe mode. As Chandra's Twitter account reminded readers, the powerful X-ray telescope is getting up its in age: "Chandra is 19 years old, which is well beyond the original design lifetime of 5 years." In a separate release, NASA confirmed Hubble is still in safe mode. Last week, NASA and European Space Agency engineers suspended the telescopes' scientific activities after one of its gyroscopes failed. Scientists turned on a replacement gyro, but the backup didn't perform as hoped.

"This past week, tests were conducted to assess the condition of that backup gyro. The tests showed that the gyro is properly tracking Hubble's movement, but the rates reported are consistently higher than the true rates," according to NASA.

Because the gyro is reading rates of changes at a greater magnitude, it can't be used to monitor smaller changes. Normally, when fixed on an observation target, Hubble's gyros operate on low-mode.

"The extremely high rates currently being reported exceed the upper limit of the gyro in this low mode, preventing the gyro from reporting the spacecraft's small movements," NASA reported.

If followup troubleshooting efforts fail, Hubble will be forced to shut down all but a single gyroscope. Previous tests showed Hubble can conduct observation using a single gyro.

Hubble and Chandra aren't the only spacecraft in trouble. Earlier this week, NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Roscosmos cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin were forced to abort their mission to the space station just moments after launch, ejecting their Soyuz capsule from the rocket and executing an emergency "ballistic descent."

And as NASA reported this week, the Mars rover Opportunity is still silent. Engineers haven't communicated with the rover for four months.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Test Launch of Russia's New Unmanned Space Vehicle Could Be Postponed

The first test launch of the unmanned version of Russia's new Federation spacecraft atop the new Soyuz-5 rocket has been suggested to be rescheduled from 2022 to 2023 after two test launches of the rocket with other spacecraft are held, a source in the aerospace industry told Sputnik Thursday. The unmanned version of Federation was initially set to be launched from Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome atop Soyuz-5 in 2022, with the second test flight planned for 2023, when the spacecraft was set to dock to the International Space Station (ISS). The manned flight was expected to be held in 2024. However, in July, the Russian Space Corporation Roscosmos said that during its first launch in 2022, the Soyuz-5 rocket will not bring Federation to the orbit, as it had initially been planned, but would have another spacecraft atop of it. "According to the new schedule of the Soyuz-5 launches, which is being formed now, five launches of the new carrier rocket are planned to be held before 2025. The first launch is scheduled for mid-2022, the second launch is set for late 2022 ... "The launch of the unmanned version of the Federation spacecraft on the Soyuz-5 rocket is suggested to be held in 2023 after two test launches of the rocket are held," the source said.

It is still unclear which spacecraft the Soyuz-5 rocket will bring to space in 2022, according to the source. In mid- and late 2024, two more launches of Soyuz-5 rockets were planned to be held in order to bring an unmanned spacecraft and a crew to the ISS, the source added.

"Thus, the terms for the launch of the manned version of the Federation spacecraft, set for Roscosmos for 2024, remain," the source pointed out.

The Russian space agency has not, however, immediately responded for the comment. The Russian spacecraft manufacturer Energiya has been working on the Federation spacecraft, aiming to substitute Soyuz rockets, which have been used to bring crews to the ISS for over 50 years, since 2009.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

United Launch Alliance building rocket of the future with industry-leading strategic partnerships

United Launch Alliance's (ULA) next-generation rocket - the Vulcan Centaur - is making strong progress in development and is on track for its initial flight in mid-2020. The Vulcan Centaur rocket design leverages the proven success of the Delta IV and Atlas V launch vehicles while introducing advanced technologies and innovative features. "Vulcan Centaur will revolutionize spaceflight and provide affordable, reliable access to space for our current and future customers," said Tory Bruno, ULA's president and CEO. "We are well on our way to the introduction of Vulcan Centaur - the future of U.S. rocket manufacturing. With state-of-the-art engineering and manufacturing techniques, this rocket is designed specifically for low recurring cost." The new rocket design is nearing completion, and the booster preliminary design and critical design reviews have been completed. Vulcan Centaur will have a maximum liftoff thrust of 3.8 million pounds and carry 56,000 pounds to low Earth orbit, 33,000 pounds to a geo-transfer orbit and 16,000 pounds to geostationary orbit with greater capability than any currently available single-core launch vehicle. "Our new rocket will be superior in reliability, cost and capability - one system for all missions," said Bruno. "We have been working closely with the U.S. Air Force, and our certification plan is in place."

Following completion of a competitive procurement, ULA has selected Blue Origin's BE-4 engine for Vulcan Centaur's booster stage. The liquefied natural gas (LNG) fueled booster will be powered by a pair of BE-4 engines, each producing 550,000 pounds of sea level thrust. As previously announced, ULA has selected Aerojet Rocketdyne's RL10 engine for the Centaur upper stage, Northrop Grumman solid rocket boosters, L-3 Avionics Systems avionics, and RUAG's payload fairings and composite structures for the new Vulcan Centaur rocket system.

"We are pleased to enter into this partnership with Blue Origin and look forward to a successful first flight of our next-generation launch vehicle," said Bruno.

"We are very glad to have our BE-4 engine selected by United Launch Alliance. United Launch Alliance is the premier launch service provider for national security missions, and we're thrilled to be part of their team and that mission," said Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith. "We can't thank Tory Bruno and the entire United Launch Alliance team enough for entrusting our engine to powering the Vulcan rocket's first stage."

Vulcan Centaur will bolster U.S. manufacturing by adding to the more than 22,000 direct and indirect American jobs in 46 states supported by ULA programs.

"ULA has chosen the best systems available to create the Vulcan Centaur," said Bruno. "These engines and components will ensure ULA continues to lead the way in space exploration, maintain our record of success and remain America's launch vehicle for our nation's most vital missions."

Vulcan Centaur is ULA's next-generation, American rocket system. As a result of these agreements, the Vulcan Centaur will surpass current rocket capabilities and launch services at significantly lower costs, while still meeting the requirements of ULA's cooperative research and development agreement with the U.S. Air Force to certify the Vulcan Centaur for national security space missions.

"Strong partners are critical to the cutting-edge innovation that is leading us into the next generation in space and ensuring mission success," said Bruno. "Partnerships with Blue Origin, Aerojet Rocketdyne, Northrop Grumman, L-3 Avionics Systems and RUAG will allow the Vulcan Centaur to transform the future of space launch for the government and commercial markets, making launch more affordable, accessible and commercially available."

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Construction of Europe's exoplanet hunter Plato begins

The construction of ESA's Plato mission to find and study planets beyond our Solar System will be led by Germany's OHB System AG as prime contractor, marking the start of the full industrial phase of the project. The announcement was made this week at the 69th International Astronautical Congress in Bremen, Germany, where the contract was formally signed. The contract covers the delivery of the satellite, including the testing phase leading to launch, support during the launch campaign, and the in-orbit commissioning phase. Plato, the PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars mission, will be launched in 2026 to find and study extrasolar planetary systems, with a special emphasis on rocky planets around Sun-like stars and their habitable zone - the distance from a star where liquid water can exist on a planet's surface. "Does a second Earth exist in the Universe? is one of the exciting questions in astrophysics today," says Johann-Dietrich Worner, Director General of ESA. "With our Plato satellite we are focusing on Earth-like planets orbiting up to the habitable zone around other stars which are similar to our Sun. This will be a major step towards finding another Earth." The spacecraft will be built and assembled by OHB together with Thales Alenia Space (France and the UK) and RUAG Space Switzerland; many ESA member States will also be involved in the construction of this European planet hunter.

The German Aerospace Center (DLR) and a consortium of various European research centers and institutes will provide the scientific instrument, consisting of an array of 26 cameras and electronic units, that will observe a large patch of the sky on the lookout for planets.

"Plato is a next-generation exoplanet mission that will monitor thousands of bright stars over a large area of the sky in search of tiny, regular dips in their brightness caused by transiting planets," says Ana Heras, Plato project scientist at ESA.

"Since planets only block a minute portion of the light radiated by their parent star, this quest requires extremely precise, long-term photometric observations."

Plato will not only seek new planets but will also investigate the properties of their host stars, and determine the planetary masses, sizes and ages with unprecedented accuracy. This will help scientists understand the architecture of exoplanet systems and determine whether they might host habitable worlds. In addition, Plato will also perform asteroseismology - the study of seismic activity of stars - providing insight into stellar interiors and evolution.

The mission will expand on the work of Cheops, ESA's upcoming exoplanet watcher, which will be launched next year to perform a first characterisation of known planets. It will be followed by Ariel, scheduled for launch in 2028, which will observe a large and diverse sample of exoplanets to study their atmospheres in great detail.

Plato will operate from the 'L2' virtual point in space 1.5 million km beyond Earth as seen from the Sun. From this vantage point, it will be our outpost to unravel the mysteries of a multitude of extrasolar worlds.

"We are pleased to kick off construction of this exciting mission," says Filippo Marliani, ESA's Plato Project Manager.

"With the prime contractor and the support of European space industry, we are looking forward to building a spacecraft that will tackle some of humankind's most profound questions."

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Cutting through the mystery of Titan's atmospheric haze

Saturn's largest moon, Titan, is unique among all moons in our solar system for its dense and nitrogen-rich atmosphere that also contains hydrocarbons and other compounds, and the story behind the formation of this rich chemical mix has been the source of some scientific debate. Now, a research collaboration involving scientists in the Chemical Sciences Division at the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) has zeroed in on a low-temperature chemical mechanism that may have driven the formation of multiple-ringed molecules - the precursors to more complex chemistry now found in the moon's brown-orange haze layer. The study, co-led by Ralf Kaiser at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and published in the Oct. 8 edition of the journal Nature Astronomy, runs counter to theories that high-temperature reaction mechanisms are required to produce the chemical makeup that satellite missions have observed in Titan's atmosphere. The team also included other researchers at Berkeley Lab, the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Samara University in Russia, and Florida International University. The team used vacuum ultraviolet light experiments at Berkeley Lab's Advanced Light Source (ALS), together with computer simulations and modeling work to demonstrate the chemical reactions that contribute to Titan's modern-day atmospheric chemistry.

"We provide evidence here for a low-temperature reaction pathway that people have not thought about," said Musahid Ahmed, a scientist in Berkeley Lab's Chemical Sciences Division and co-leader of the study at the ALS. "This gives rise to a missing link in Titan's chemistry."

Titan may yield clues to the development of complex chemistry on other moons and planets, including Earth, he explained. "People use Titan to think about a 'pre-biotic' Earth - when nitrogen was more prevalent in the early Earth's atmosphere."

Benzene, a simple hydrocarbon with a six-carbon single-ring molecular structure, has been detected on Titan and is believed to be a building block for larger hydrocarbon molecules with two- and three-ring structures that, in turn, formed other hydrocarbons and aerosol particles that now make up Titan's atmosphere. These multiple-ring hydrocarbon molecules are known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

In the latest study, researchers mixed two gases - a short-lived two-ring PAH known as a naphthyl radical (C10H7) and a hydrocarbon called vinylacetylene (C4H4) - at the ALS, and produced three-ring PAHs in the process. Both of the chemicals used to drive the reaction are inferred to exist on Titan based on what is known about the chemical makeup of its atmosphere.

The ALS experiments jetted away the end products of the reactions from a small reaction chamber. Researchers used a detector known as a reflectron time-of-flight mass spectrometer to measure the mass of molecular fragments produced in the reaction of the two gases. Those measurements supplied details about the chemistry of the three-ring PAHs (phenanthrene and anthracene).

While the ALS experiments used a chemical reactor to simulate the chemical reaction and a beam of vacuum ultraviolet light to detect the products of the reaction, supporting calculations and simulations showed how the chemicals formed in the ALS experiments do not require high temperatures.

PAHs like the chemicals studied at the ALS have properties that make them particularly difficult to identify in deep space, Kaiser said. "In fact, not a single, individual PAH has been detected in the gas phase of the interstellar medium," which is the material that fills the space between stars.

He added, "Our study demonstrates that PAHs are more widely spread than anticipated, since they do not require the high temperatures that are present around carbon stars. This mechanism we explored is predicted to be versatile and is expected to lead to the formation of even more complex PAHs."

And because PAHs are considered as precursors to forming molecular clouds - the so-called "molecular factories" of more complex organic molecules that can include the precursors to life as we know it - "This could open up theories and new models of how carbon-containing material in deep space and in the rich atmospheres of planets and their moons in our solar system evolve and originate," he said.

Alexander M. Mebel, a chemistry professor at Florida International University and co-leader of the study, carried out calculations that showed how the reactants can naturally come together and form new compounds at very low temperatures.

"Our calculations revealed the reaction mechanism," Mebel said. "We showed that you don't need any energy to drive the reaction of naphthyl and vinylacetylene, so the reaction should be efficient even in the low-temperature and low-pressure atmospheric conditions on Titan."

A key to the study was in the detailed modeling of the reactor cell where the gases were mixed.

Mebel noted that modeling of the energies and simulations of the gas-flow dynamics in play within the reactor help to monitor reaction progress inside the reactor, and allowed researchers to tie theoretical results closely with experimental observations.

The modeling work, which helped to predict the chemicals produced in the reactions based on the initial gases and the temperature and pressure of the heated chamber where the gases were mixed and struck with the vacuum ultraviolet beam, was led by the research team at Samara University.

"This verification of the model, by comparing it with experiments, can also be helpful in predicting how the reaction would proceed in different conditions - from Titan's atmosphere to combustion flames on Earth."

An aim of the continuing research, Kaiser said, is to unravel the details of how carbon-containing compounds with similar structures to DNA and RNA can develop even in extreme environments.

Hubble in Safe Mode as Gyro Issues are Diagnosed

NASA is working to resume science operations of the Hubble Space Telescope after the spacecraft entered safe mode on Friday, October 5, shortly after 6:00 p.m. EDT. Hubble's instruments still are fully operational and are expected to produce excellent science for years to come. Hubble entered safe mode after one of the three gyroscopes (gyros) actively being used to point and steady the telescope failed. Safe mode puts the telescope into a stable configuration until ground control can correct the issue and return the mission to normal operation. Built with multiple redundancies, Hubble had six new gyros installed during Servicing Mission-4 in 2009. Hubble usually uses three gyros at a time for maximum efficiency, but can continue to make scientific observations with just one. The gyro that failed had been exhibiting end-of-life behavior for approximately a year, and its failure was not unexpected; two other gyros of the same type had already failed. The remaining three gyros available for use are technically enhanced and therefore expected to have significantly longer operational lives.Two of those enhanced gyros are currently running. Upon powering on the third enhanced gyro that had been held in reserve, analysis of spacecraft telemetry indicated that it was not performing at the level required for operations.

As a result, Hubble remains in safe mode. Staff at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and the Space Telescope Science Institute are currently performing analyses and tests to determine what options are available to recover the gyro to operational performance.

Science operations with Hubble have been suspended while NASA investigates the anomaly. An Anomaly Review Board, including experts from the Hubble team and industry familiar with the design and performance of this type of gyro, is being formed to investigate this issue and develop the recovery plan. If the outcome of this investigation results in recovery of the malfunctioning gyro, Hubble will resume science operations in its standard three-gyro configuration.

If the outcome indicates that the gyro is not usable, Hubble will resume science operations in an already defined "reduced-gyro" mode that uses only one gyro. While reduced-gyro mode offers less sky coverage at any particular time, there is relatively limited impact on the overall scientific capabilities.