Monday, November 26, 2018

GMV leads an ambitious campaign of space robotics trials

Since mid-September the technology multinational GMV has been taking part in the final field tests of the projects included under the European Commission's (H2020) Strategic Research Cluster ( SRC ) programme. These tests are due to run until December 15. The main aim of the space robotics SRC is to create, within the timeframe of 2020-2030, the necessary tools for consolidating the technical maturity of robotics systems for in-orbit- servicing and planetary-exploration missions. The PERASPERA project which is providing the roadmap and technical supervision of the programme, funded under the Research and Innovation Programme, Horizon 2020 (H2020), is being coordinated by the European Space Agency (ESA); the partners are the Italian Space Agency (Agenzia Spaziale Italiana: ASI), Spain's Industrial Technology Development Center (Centro para el Desarrollo Tecnologico Industrial: CDTI), the French Space Studies Center (Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales: CNES), the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum fur Luft- und Raumfahrt: DLR) and the UK Space Agency (UKSA). Initial SRC activities have addressed designing, manufacturing and testing of reliable and high-performance common robotic building blocks (through six operational grants-OGs) for operation in space environments (orbital and/or planetary). In the last and most challenging phases of the first Cluster call, the six technology building blocks are being tested to serve as the basis for future orbital and planetary missions.

GMV is leading 3 of these technology building blocks: the European Space Robotics Control and Operating System-OG1 ( ESROCOS ), centering on the creation of operational software capable of controlling a space robotics system in all mission phases; the European Robotics Goal-Oriented Autonomous Controller-OG2 ( ERGO ), the block designed to develop the autonomy system for planning, scheduling and overseeing the execution of elementary activities of robotics systems; and Facilities for Testing Orbital and Surface Robotics Building Blocks-OG6 (FACILITATORS ), for providing the orbital and planetary scenarios for the rest of the projects, including the preparation of facilities for validation of robotics systems and the organization of field testing campaigns.

In September the Test Readiness Reviews (TRR) of the three projects were conducted; this marked the completion of the software-development and -integration activities and the start of the field test campaign led by the FACILITATORS project, which will validate the framework of the projects in scenarios representative of space robotics.

The platform-art testbed, on-orbit servicing validation scenario

During September the ESROCOS framework was validated in three scenarios representative of space robotics and critical terrestrial applications. The first validation in the orbital servicing scneario was conducted in GMV's robotic space dynamics testbed platform-art , simulating the inspection of a berthed satellite using a robotic manipulator equipped with a camera. The second was held on ADS's Stevenage site (UK), involving tests with a Martian rover (Bridget).

Finally, ESROCOS was validated in a nuclear scenario: a terrestrial robotic test to control a robot designed for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), using the prototype kept on VTT's site in Tampere (Finland). The software test activities in the three facilities have been successfully completed according to the test plan; the next step is final project acceptance.

In October, additionally ERGO ran its orbital scenario field tests on GMV's platform-art . The tests involved the repair of an artificial satellite in orbit (the target), using a service spacecraft (chaser) that approached the satellite to repair it by means of a robotic arm. The satellite to be repaired was made up by a set of cubs (Active Payload Modules, or APMs) that could be replaced in orbit.

The tests showed the ERGO system to be capable of drawing up a plan with the sequence of operations to be carried out with the cubes until achieving the desired configuration. Crucially, it was also proven that, should any fault occur during the operation, the system is capable of drawing up a new plan to lessen the fault's effects, achieving, where possible, repair of the satellite in orbit without the need for any operator intervention. The I3DS project, led by Thales Alenia Space, also validated its technologies in GMV's platform-art testbed.

The suite of sensors developed in this project has been tested under conditions representing an in-orbit servicing scenario, using a mockup with realistic details and the testbed's mobile lighting system, which provided many different lighting angles. The robots' great precision set up a comparison reference with the readings obtained from I3DS's sensors and allows their validation.

The Moroccan desert, as a Mars-like terrain, is chosen as the terrestrial validation scenario of space robotics technologies

Finally, from mid-November to mid-December the northern tip of the Sahara desert in Morocco staged the final tests of ERGO and INFUSE (the latter led by the Belgian firm Space Application Services).

In this field test campaign, held under the FACILITATORS project and coordinated by the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (Deutsches Forschungszentrum fur Kunstliche Intelligenz GmbH: DFKI), the robotics technologies developed under the SRC will be tested outside the laboratories.

The robotic platform in charge of field testing the technology developed by both projects will be the Rover SherpaTT, a desert veteran that successfully participated in a simulated space mission in the Utah desert (USA) back in 2016.

In the case of ERGO, SherpaTT will be using a pioneer robotics technology developed to conduct an autonomous long-distance mission. With the goal of taking a soil sample at a remote destination, the rover will travel a kilometer-long route in the Moroccan desert landscape of wide plains, but also steep slopes and gorges. In doing so, it has to plan its own route and react to unforeseen situations, e.g. adapt to changing ground conditions and overcome obstacles.

Along this route SherpaTT will be carrying a camera and image recognition system capable of ascertaining if the surrounding rock or soil has interesting features not previously catalogued, for subsequent characterization and analysis.

On this principle of opportunistic science SHERPA.TT will act autonomously, altering its initial plan defined by human operators to suit this new information input. This new plan will include taking images of the unknown features catalogued as of potential interest (rocks, terrain, etc...). This whole process will definitively prove the ERGO system's autonomous decision- making capabilities.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

RUAG Space signs MOA with Australian rocket company Gilmour Space

Australia's leading rocket company, Gilmour Space Technologies, has signed a long-term collaboration and supply agreement with global launch industry supplier, RUAG Space. The memorandum of agreement, the first of its kind in Australia, explores the use of RUAG Space's new range of FlexLine carbon composite products in Gilmour Space's proprietary hybrid rockets. The Queensland-based company is targeting to launch small satellites weighing up to 100 kg into low earth orbits from 2020, and up to 400 kg from 2021. "RUAG Space has a long history of providing reliable launch technologies for rockets like the Ariane 5, Vega and Atlas," said Gilmour Space CEO and Founder, Adam Gilmour. "With this collaboration, we look to leverage on their proven expertise, while lowering our launcher development costs and time-to-market."  Holger Wentscher, Senior Vice President Launchers at RUAG Space: "Our new FlexLine products offer weight optimised, reliable and user-friendly solutions, at best-in-class series cost. "It has been very exciting to see the progress that Gilmour Space and Australia have made in the space domain since we first met at the IAC (International Astronautical Congress) in Adelaide last year; and we look forward to collaborating with them in their goal to provide lower cost access to space from Australia."

Shaping the surface of Mars with water, wind and ice

ESA's Mars Express has imaged an intriguing part of the Red Planet's surface: a rocky, fragmented, furrowed escarpment lying at the boundary of the northern and southern hemisphere. This region is an impressive example of past activity on the planet and shows signs of where flowing wind, water and ice once moved material from place to place, carving out distinctive patterns and landforms as it did so. Mars is a planet of two halves. In places, the northern hemisphere of the planet sits a full few kilometres lower than the southern; this clear topographic split is known as the martian dichotomy, and is an especially distinctive feature on the Red Planet's surface. Northern Mars also displays large areas of smooth land, whereas the planet's southern regions are heavily pockmarked and scattered with craters. This is thought to be the result of past volcanic activity, which has resurfaced parts of Mars to create smooth plains in the north - and left other regions ancient and untouched. The star of this Mars Express image, a furrowed, rock-filled escarpment known as Nili Fossae, sits at the boundary of this north-south divide. This region is filled with rocky valleys, small hills, and clusters of flat-topped landforms (known as mesas in geological terms), with some chunks of crustal rock appearing to be depressed down into the surface creating a number of ditch-like features known as graben.

As with much of the surrounding environment, and despite Mars' reputation as a dry, arid world today, water is believed to have played a key role in sculpting Nili Fossae via ongoing erosion. In addition to visual cues, signs of past interaction with water have been spotted in the western (upper) part of this image - instruments such as Mars Express' OMEGA spectrometer have spotted clay minerals here, which are key indicators that water was once present.

The elevation of Nili Fossae and surroundings, shown in the topographic view above, is somewhat varied; regions to the left and lower left (south) sit higher than those to the other side of the frame (north), illustrating the aforementioned dichotomy. This higher-altitude terrain appears to consist mostly of rocky plateaus, while lower terrain comprises smaller rocks, mesas, hills, and more, with the two sections roughly separated by erosion channels and valleys.

This split is thought to be the result of material moving around on Mars hundreds of millions of years ago. Similar to glaciers on Earth, flows of water and ice cut through the martian terrain and slowly sculpted and eroded it over time, also carrying material along with them. In the case of Nili Fossae, this was carried from higher areas to lower ones, with chunks of resistant rock and hardy material remaining largely intact but shifting downslope to form the mesas and landforms seen today.

The shapes and structures scattered throughout this image are thought to have been shaped over time by flows of not only water and ice, but also wind. Examples can be seen in this image in patches of the surface that appear to be notably dark against the ochre background, as if smudged with charcoal or ink.

These are areas of darker volcanic sand, which have been transported and deposited by present-day martian winds. Wind moves sand and dust around often on Mars' surface, creating rippling dune fields across the planet and forming multi-coloured, patchy terrain like Nili Fossae.

The data comprising this image were gathered by Mars Express' High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) on 26 February 2018.

ESA's Mars Express was launched in 2003. As well as producing striking views of the martian surface such as this, the mission has shed light on many of the planet's biggest mysteries - and helped to build the picture of Mars as a planet that was once warmer, wetter and potentially habitable. Read more about the past 15 years of Mars Express, and what the mission has discovered so far, here.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

InSight Spacecraft on Course for Mars Touchdown

NASA's Mars Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport spacecraft is on track for a soft touchdown on the surface of the Red Planet on Nov. 26, the Monday after Thanksgiving. But it's not going to be a relaxing weekend of turkey leftovers, football and shopping for the InSight mission team. Engineers will be keeping a close eye on the stream of data indicating InSight's health and trajectory, and monitoring Martian weather reports to figure out if the team needs to make any final adjustments in preparation for landing, only five days away. "Landing on Mars is hard. It takes skill, focus and years of preparation," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Keeping in mind our ambitious goal to eventually send humans to the surface of the Moon and then Mars, I know that our incredible science and engineering team - the only in the world to have successfully landed spacecraft on the Martian surface - will do everything they can to successfully land InSight on the Red Planet." InSight, the first mission to study the deep interior of Mars, blasted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Central California on May 5, 2018. It has been an uneventful flight to Mars, and engineers like it that way. They will get plenty of excitement when InSight hits the top of the Martian atmosphere at 12,300 mph (19,800 kph) and slows down to 5 mph (8 kph) - about human jogging speed - before its three legs touch down on Martian soil. That extreme deceleration has to happen in just under seven minutes.

"There's a reason engineers call landing on Mars 'seven minutes of terror,'" said Rob Grover, InSight's entry, descent and landing (EDL) lead, based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

"We can't joystick the landing, so we have to rely on the commands we pre-program into the spacecraft. We've spent years testing our plans, learning from other Mars landings and studying all the conditions Mars can throw at us. And we're going to stay vigilant till InSight settles into its home in the Elysium Planitia region."

One way engineers may be able to confirm quickly what activities InSight has completed during those seven minutes of terror is if the experimental CubeSat mission known as Mars Cube One (MarCO) relays InSight data back to Earth in near-real time during their flyby on Nov. 26. The two MarCO spacecraft (A and B) are making good progress toward their rendezvous point, and their radios have already passed their first deep-space tests.

"Just by surviving the trip so far, the two MarCO satellites have made a giant leap for CubeSats," said Anne Marinan, a MarCO systems engineer based at JPL. "And now we are gearing up for the MarCOs' next test - serving as a possible model for a new kind of interplanetary communications relay."

If all goes well, the MarCOs may take a few seconds to receive and format the data before sending it back to Earth at the speed of light. This would mean engineers at JPL and another team at Lockheed Martin Space in Denver would be able to tell what the lander did during EDL approximately eight minutes after InSight completes its activities.

Without MarCO, InSight's team would need to wait several hours for engineering data to return via the primary communications pathways - relays through NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey orbiter.

Once engineers know that the spacecraft has touched down safely in one of the several ways they have to confirm this milestone and that InSight's solar arrays have deployed properly, the team can settle into the careful, three-month-long process of deploying science instruments.

"Landing on Mars is exciting, but scientists are looking forward to the time after InSight lands," said Lori Glaze, acting director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters.

"Once InSight is settled on the Red Planet and its instruments are deployed, it will start collecting valuable information about the structure of Mars' deep interior - information that will help us understand the formation and evolution of all rocky planets, including the one we call home."

"Previous missions haven't gone more than skin-deep at Mars," added Sue Smrekar, the InSight mission's deputy principal investigator at JPL. "InSight scientists can't wait to explore the heart of Mars."

Friday, November 23, 2018

NASA retires prolific solar observatory after 16 years

Every morning for the past 16 years, solar physicist Sam Krucker sat down at his desk to check the latest data from NASA's RHESSI. Had the solar observatory seen a flare overnight? If there was a new flare, Krucker, RHESSI principal investigator at University of California, Berkeley, since 2013, would pore over the data, each recorded X-ray telling him something about the giant explosion on the Sun. Now, many years after launching on Feb. 5, 2002, the RHESSI - short for Reuven Ramaty High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager - mission has ended; Krucker, and many other scientists, will no longer check the spacecraft's data returns each day. In anticipation of losing touch with the spacecraft's aging receiver, mission operators sent the spacecraft commands to decommission on Aug. 16, 2018. "It does impact everyday life that way," Krucker said. Though it's appropriate timing for RHESSI to stop operations now, he said, while the Sun nears solar minimum, the lull in its activity over an approximately 11-year cycle. "The next two to three years would have been quite boring." RHESSI's job was to watch the Sun for solar flares, some of the most dramatic events on the Sun that can sometimes fling solar energy toward Earth. During a flare, gas in the Sun's atmosphere rapidly soars over 20 million degrees Fahrenheit, sending particles flying at near-light speeds. In turn, the particles emit high-energy emissions like X-rays and even higher gamma rays, which we can detect from far away.

These rays can't, however, penetrate Earth's atmosphere and be measured from the ground, so RHESSI observed them from space. In doing so, RHESSI aimed to understand how flares work, the physics underlying how the Sun generates such powerful bursts of energy.

Ask any scientist who worked on RHESSI what their favorite flare is, and they'll easily rattle off a date, as if it's a birthday or holiday they'll always remember. Krucker said his favorite is either Jan. 20, 2005, or July 19, 2012.

Mission scientist Brian Dennis at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said April 21, 2002, RHESSI's very first X-class flare - the strongest type. For them, these are special dates because RHESSI taught them something new that day.

"When I first looked at the Jan. 20 flare and saw where the high energy was coming from, that brought my understanding to the next level," Krucker said. "One guy even has a most-hated flare. He had many arguments with colleagues over it, trying to explain it, which was not always pleasurable."

Throughout the course of its mission, RHESSI saw more than 75,000 solar flares. These observations have helped scientists craft and refine a model of how solar eruptions form. Launching in early 2002, just after the Sun reached solar maximum in 2001, the spacecraft was poised to see many flares.

"High energies are always interesting in astronomy," University of Minnesota solar scientist Lindsay Glesener said. "They're the biggest explosions, the hottest plasma. But flares are going on at our Sun, which is right next to us and affects us in lots of ways. When I was a grad student, it took just one conversation with Robert Lin, the principal investigator from 2002 to 2012, to convince me flares are the most fascinating thing in the universe."

To understand how solar flares erupt from the Sun, you have to know where their energy comes from. For this, RHESSI carried just one instrument, called an imaging spectrometer, capable of recording both X-rays and gamma rays. For scientists, these high-energy emissions are like fingerprints, showing them how each eruption unfolds: X-rays are associated with electron activity, while gamma rays come from protons and ions.

The instrument combined images of the Sun with its spectroscopy to show all the different energy levels in the flare. This allows scientists to map out where energy comes from during an explosion, and what's producing that energy.

"Previous mission designs had two different instruments, but RHESSI was able to study this large energy range in X-rays and gamma rays, all with the same instrument," said Albert Shih, RHESSI deputy mission scientist at Goddard. "It was an innovative design, and a lot of good science came of it."

RHESSI's observation of so many flares over the years, from one solar cycle to the next, broke new ground in solar physics and enabled a much deeper understanding of flares - where they accelerate particles, and just how much they can vary in scale, from tiny nanoflares to massive superflares, tens of thousands of times bigger and more explosive.

"RHESSI had several firsts," Dennis said. "No one had ever imaged X-rays at this high an energy level before, or imaged gamma rays at all. RHESSI made great strides by making energy measurements with higher resolution than had previously been possible."

Solar Flares Aren't Simple

With these unprecedented capabilities, RHESSI gave scientists entirely novel information, revealing just how complex flares can be.

Early RHESSI observations of a strong flare on April 15, 2002, showed X-rays coming from two different places at once: one high in the Sun's atmosphere and another lower down. Researchers interpreted this to mean a huge punch of energy occurred between the two spots.

After tracking the energy in the two-sided explosion, they realized part of the explosion's energy shot high into the Sun's atmosphere and burst into a cloud of hot plasma to become a coronal mass ejection, while the other part bore down towards the surface, exploding into a flare.

These explosions - the most powerful in the solar system - came to be known as solar eruptive events, in which the Sun's strongest flares and coronal mass ejections are linked, occurring at the same time.

RHESSI introduced solar researchers to entirely new questions on the nature of flares. During an intense October 2003 flare, scientists noticed X-rays and gamma rays coming from two different places.

Although electrons and ions have different masses, scientists expected them to originate from the same spot in the flare. Since each kind of emission reflects the presence of different kinds of particles, the unexpected disparity hinted at different mechanisms guiding the movements of each type of particle. Scientists still don't fully understand this process.

"Thanks to RHESSI, we know much more about where particles are accelerated in flares," Glesener said. "But how they get accelerated remains a big mystery. RHESSI told us where we need to look in order to finish answering these questions."

The Shape of Our Star

RHESSI's long-term data sets also led to findings that have nothing to do with flares at all. One major result concerned the shape of the Sun itself. Since it constantly spins, scientists expect the Sun, like Earth, to be a slightly flattened sphere with a bulging waistline. But pre-RHESSI measurements of the Sun determined it to be much flatter than theory dictated, raising questions of whether scientists had overlooked some crucial piece of information in their calculations.

RHESSI put their confusion to rest through the routine information it gathered to assess where its instrument was pointing. To keep perfectly oriented, the spacecraft precisely recorded the position of the Sun's horizon 16 times per second. With such an extensive collection of data, scientists were able to determine the best ever measurement of the Sun's shape - and a close match to theoretical predictions.

Understanding Earth's Lightning Storms

RHESSI's watch of gamma rays throughout the sky made it a prime tool to measure what are called terrestrial gamma-ray flashes, bursts of gamma rays emitted from high in Earth's atmosphere over lightning storms.

The first of these had been spotted before, but RHESSI invigorated an entire field of study when it showed they are more common and luminous than previously thought. Current numbers suggest there may be as many as 400 bursts daily from thunderstorms at different locations around the world. The finding spurred new research, CubeSat observations and computer modeling.

More Science to Come

Throughout RHESSI's lifetime, scientists made the most of the mission by integrating its observations with those from other missions such as NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory and STEREO, short for the Solar and Terrestrial Relations Observatory. Different instruments focus on different aspects of the Sun, or different levels of energy.

By combining various vantage points across NASA's fleet of heliophysics spacecraft, researchers could piece together a holistic picture of the Sun's complex behavior. Scientists expect RHESSI will continue to shed light on flares for years to come, as they continue to parse its trove of data.

With RHESSI no longer in operation, solar researchers do not currently have a way to monitor high-energy flare emissions. But new missions under development carry the torch of RHESSI's legacy.

"RHESSI established many young scientists, generating an entire class of high-energy solar physicists," Krucker said. "If you look at who's leading the next generation of X-ray telescopes now, they come from RHESSI science."

Glesener and Shih both began their doctoral studies in solar physics with RHESSI data. Now, each is deeply involved with developing and testing advanced high-energy solar instruments for new missions - including the FOXSI sounding rocket and GRIPS high-altitude balloon.

"Throughout its 16 years, it was RHESSI answering questions, but asking new ones along the way, that has motivated future missions," said Shih, who is also the GRIPS project scientist. "RHESSI set the groundwork and framed our expectations for missions that will look at the Sun in even more detail as we investigate entirely new mysteries."

RHESSI first launched as HESSI in February 2002, but was renamed just months after launch, in April that year, in memory of Reuven Ramaty, a deceased NASA scientist who had long championed the mission. The nominal two-year mission was first extended in 2004 for two years, and then extended several times more until its end.

Currently, RHESSI is in a stable low-Earth orbit. But since it has no propulsion, atmospheric drag will continue to tug at its orbit until the satellite reenters Earth's atmosphere, which is expected to occur as early as 2022. NASA will monitor the satellite's deorbiting and reentry.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

NanoRacks provides historic triple-altitude delivery for customers in single Space Station launch

Early this morning, Cygnus, the spacecraft from the tenth contracted cargo resupply mission for Northrop Grumman (previously Orbital ATK), berthed with the International Space Station carrying yet another historic NanoRacks mission. For the first time ever, NanoRacks booked customers on three different altitudes on one commercial resupply launch. The first delivery will be a research experiment to the astronauts on station. The experiment, "Experimental Chondrule Formation at the International Space Station," or EXCISS, is the third and final project to launch through the joint "Uberflieger" program, sponsored by DLR, the German Space Agency, and DreamUp, an XO Markets company and the leading provider of educational opportunities in space. The Uberflieger program sponsored flights and educational programming for three winning German university teams to fly experiments to the Space Station via NanoRacks' services. EXCISS, from Goethe University in Frankfurt, will study the formation of the solar system on the chondrule level inside a NanoLab. Chondrules are submillimeter to millimeter sized spherical particles that make up most of the mass of meteorites. The Uberflieger Program was developed to coincide with German Astronaut Alexander Gerst's tenure in orbit.

After Cygnus' stay at the Space Station, the spacecraft is planned to maneuver to a higher altitude where the sixth NanoRacks External Cygnus Deployment Program mission will deploy two of three CubeSats on board into orbit, MySat-1 and the second CHEFSat satellite.

The launch of MySat-1 marks an additional historic moment for NanoRacks, being the first payload that NanoRacks has launched from the United Arab Emirates (UAE). MySat-1 is a joint program from Yahsat, Khalifa University of Science and Technology, and Northrop Grumman. NanoRacks has provided access to space to over 30 nations around the world.

"It's so exciting to now have the UAE as part of the NanoRacks international family," says Vice President of Business Development and Strategy Allen Herbert. "It's been a pleasure to work with Yahsat and Khalifa University, as this program truly demonstrates the collaboration between educational programs and advanced research. I offer a special thanks to Northrop Grumman as the sponsor for this program, and showing how the UAE provides the leading example of success for other emerging space nations around the world."

After MySat-1 and CHEFSat are deployed, NanoRacks will deliver the final customer payload in a third altitude. Northrop Grumman will direct Cygnus below the ISS to deploy KickSat-2, a collaborative CubeSat from NASA Ames Research Center and Stanford University. KickSat-2 was selected for flight by NASA's CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI) and is being launched as the sole CubeSat in the Educational Launch of Nanosatellites-16 (ELaNa-16) mission complement, sponsored by the NASA Launch Services Program (LSP).

KickSat-2 is being deployed well below the International Space Station altitude due to the satellite sub-deploying smaller "ChipSats," a prototype representing a disruptive new space technology. These ChipSats, also known as "Sprites," are tiny spacecraft that include power, sensors, and communication systems on a printed circuit board measuring 3.5 by 3.5 centimeters, with a thickness of just a few millimeters and a mass of just a few grams. The ChipSats are expected to be in orbit for only a few days before burning up.

"We're dancing in orbit" says External Payloads Manager Henry Martin. "NanoRacks is here to build out custom missions to meet all of our customer needs, and now that means delivering in multiple altitudes on one vehicle."

The NanoRacks External Cygnus Program is the first program to have leveraged a commercial resupply vehicle for use beyond the primary cargo delivery to Space Station, demonstrating the future possibilities for using cargo vehicles for the Company's future Outpost program, and other commercial space station activities. Upon the successful completion of this mission, NanoRacks will have deployed 35 satellites from the Cygnus into multiple orbits.

"It's all in a day's work," continues Martin. "And we're especially thankful to the teams at both Northrop Grumman and NASA for being our partners in innovation within the Cygnus and International Space Station programs."

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Portugal builds spaceport in the Azores

One of the islands of the Azores archipelago, Santa Maria, may soon become a base for launching small satellites, unique in Europe (the spaceport will deal with launching only small satellites, unlike the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana). Currently, companies from eight countries are competing for the right to use the port. Fourteen enterprises from the US, Russia, Netherlands, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, and Portugal have submitted applications for the first stage of Atlantic International Satellite Launch Programme. Regional Secretary for the Sea, Science and Technology Gui Manuel Machado Menezes explained to Sputnik: "At the moment, a senior officials committee is being gathered to consider the applications. After that, the committee will invite certain companies to participate in the second stage, where more concrete projects will be examined. The second stage will take place in January - February 2019." The programme is an important step for Portugal in developing new technologies and subsequently changing the market structure. The description of the project reads: "The base is expected to satisfy growing demand for special orbits of small satellites, used for different purposes, such as communication programmes [...] Earth observation programmes that can monitor agricultural and fishing activities, observe oceans, make measurements on the Earth and in the air, monitor infrastructure, city development and security. This market will bring billions of dollars in the decades to come."

The creators of the programme plan to offer affordable services to those who are going to launch satellites weighing up to 500kg into polar orbits, or those, synchronized with the Sun at an altitude ranging from 400 to 1,000km above Earth.

This project is a joint initiative of the Portuguese government and the regional authorities of the Azores, being carried out with technical support from the European Space Agency, which Portugal is a member of.

Piero Messina, a representative of the ESA's Strategy Department in Paris, confirmed that: "The agency will participate in the projects and provide advice at all stages."

For example, in July the Portuguese sent a recent study to the agency outlining the reasons for building a spaceport on the Azores. The document mentions that the location of the island of Santa Maria is well suited for launching such objects.

Messina explained: "The island is in the middle of the Atlantic, far from other populated territories, which provides greater security of launches."

Apart from private funding that will be invested in the base by the prevailing company, the government of Portugal will give 5 million euros.

Gui Menezes said: "To provide access to the spaceport, several roads will be rebuilt, some airport areas, such as warehouses and compartments for fuel storage, will be improved. The basic infrastructure of the island, such as the water-supply network and electricity grid, as well as a launching site, will be enhanced."

It is expected that the spaceport will be operational by the first half of 2021. According to the Portuguese government, the new object will be a stimulus for the development of the region, creating more workplaces.

Menezes concluded: "We hope that other companies from this sphere, dealing not only with small satellite launches but also with the whole production chain, including software and hardware, will take part in the project. We also hope that Portuguese companies will actively participate in the process and qualified personnel will come to the Azores."

NASA's Quiet Supersonic Technology Project passes major milestone

NASA has officially committed to a development timeline that will lead to the first flight of its X-59 Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST) aircraft in just three years. This critical milestone comes after a rigorous review, Key Decision Point-C (KDP-C), that confirmed NASA's continued support of the X-59, in terms of funding, and established an achievable development timeline for NASA's first piloted, full-size X-plane in more than three decades. "This aircraft has the potential to transform aviation in the United States and around the world by making faster-than-sound air travel over land possible for everyone," said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. "We can't wait to see this bird fly!" KDP-C commits NASA to the full X-59 development effort through flight-testing in 2021. The cost and schedule commitments outlined in KDP-C align the project with program management best practices that account for potential technical risks and budgetary uncertainty beyond the project's control. "This is a monumental milestone for the project," said Jaiwon Shin, NASA's associate administrator for aeronautics. "I'm extremely proud of the team for its hard work getting to this point, and we all look forward to watching this aircraft take shape and then take flight."

The X-59 QueSST is shaped to reduce the loudness of a sonic boom to that of a gentle thump, if it's heard at all. The supersonic aircraft will be flown above select U.S. communities to measure public perception of the noise - data that will help regulators establish new rules for commercial supersonic air travel over land.

Management of X-59 QueSST development falls under the Low Boom Flight Demonstrator project, part of the Integrated Aviation Systems Program in NASA's Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate.

Monday, November 19, 2018

New space industry emerges: on-orbit servicing

Imagine an airport where thousands of planes, empty of fuel, are left abandoned on the tarmac. That is what has been happening for decades with satellites that circle the Earth. When satellites run out of fuel, they can no longer maintain their precise orbit, rendering them useless even if their hardware is still intact. "It's literally throwing away hundreds of millions of dollars," Al Tadros, vice president of space infrastructure and civil Space at a company called SSL, said this month at a meeting in the US capital of key players in the emerging field of on-orbit servicing, or repairing satellites while they are in space. In recent years, new aerospace companies have been founded to try and extend the lifespan of satellites, on the hunch that many clients would find this more profitable than relaunching new ones. In 2021, his company will launch a vehicle -- as part of its Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program -- that is capable of servicing two to three dozen satellites in a distant geostationary orbit, some 22,000 miles (36,000 kilometers) from Earth where there are about 500 active satellites, most in telecommunications. This unmanned spacecraft will be able to latch onto a satellite to inspect it, refuel it, and possibly even repair it or change components, and put it back in the correct orbit.

Tadros describes it as "equivalent to a AAA servicing truck in geostationary orbit."

And "it's financially a very, very big opportunity," he adds.

Telecommunications giant Intelsat, which operates 50 geostationary satellites, chose a different option and signed a contract with Space Logistics, a branch of Northrop Grumman, for its MEV, a "very simple system" vice president Ken Lee told AFP is much like a "tow truck."

When it launches in 2019, the spacecraft will attach itself to a broken down satellite, and reposition it in its correct orbit.

The MEV will stay attached and use its own engine to stay in orbit.

- Too much debris -

On-orbit servicing could also help cut down on the perplexing problem of mounting space debris.

Of the 23,000 space objects counted by the US military, just 1,900 are active satellites.

The rest -- which move at speeds of some 12-19,000 miles (20-30,000 kilometers) per hour -- includes nearly 3,000 inactive satellites, 2,000 pieces of rockets (such as the second stages of rockets) and thousands of fragments produced by two key events: the deliberate missile explosion of a Chinese satellite in 2007, and the 2009 collision of an Iridium satellite with an aging Russian one.

No short term solution has been identified for small-scale space junk, but some companies would like to be able to remove defunct satellites from orbit.

Since 2008, France has required satellite operators to take steps to "deorbit" their spacecrafts by programming them to re-enter Earth's atmosphere in 25 years so that they burn up, according to Laurent Francillout, head of space security at the French National Center for Space Studies (CNES).

When it comes to satellites in geostationary orbits, their end-of-life option is to go farther from Earth to a "graveyard orbit" 200 miles (300 kilometers) further away.

"We are trying to promote these principles" in other countries, Francillout told AFP.

A small Japanese company founded in 2013, Astroscale, is developing a system to approach and capture space debris and broken satellites.

Though it doesn't have a clientele yet, director of operations Chris Blackerby anticipates the business would be "very viable."

A test launch is planned for 2020.

Airbus's future "Space Tug," planned for 2023, is being built to grab old satellites and push them down to 125 miles (200 kilometers) above Earth so they burn up.

The problem of space junk is only getting worse.

The number of satellites in space has already risen 50 percent in five years, according to the Satellite Industry Association, and growth continues.

Meanwhile, debate is roiling in the United States over the need for better international regulation of space traffic, aimed at avoiding accidents and managing future conflicts.

"We don't want the Wild West," said Fred Kennedy, director of the Tactical Technology Office at DARPA, the technological research arm of the Pentagon, noting that the United States, with its fleet of military satellites, is keen to establish sound practices beyond the boundaries of Earth.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Astronomers find picture of hefty star before it blew up

Supernovas are the deathly explosions of massive stars. One of the ways that astronomers look for clues about how these stars blow up is to go hunting for what's known as the progenitor to a supernova - the star before it died. They comb through archival telescope images and try to pinpoint the location and identity of the star before it blasted apart. Now, for the first time, a Caltech-led team has likely found such a progenitor for a supernova class known as "Type Ic" (pronounced "one-C"). Of all the classes of supernovas, this is the only one that did not have a known progenitor until now and thus its identification was thought of as something of a Holy Grail by astronomers. The Type Ic supernova, called SN 2017ein, was initially discovered in May 2017 by researchers using the Tenagra Observatories in Arizona. It is located in a spiral galaxy called NGC 3938, about 65 million light-years away. The Caltech astronomy team was able to track down this supernova's progenitor using archival images from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, taken in 2007. "An alert was sent out when the supernova was initially found," says Schuyler Van Dyk, a staff scientist at IPAC, a science and data center for astronomy at Caltech. "You can't sleep once that happens and have to mobilize to try to find the progenitor to the explosion. Within a few weeks after the supernova was discovered, we found a candidate using both new and archival Hubble images."

 Van Dyk is lead author of a paper about the findings, published this summer in The Astrophysical Journal. "The new images were essential for pinpointing the candidate progenitor's location."

The progenitor is hot and luminous and is thought to be either a single hefty star 48 or 49 times the mass of our Sun or a massive binary star system in which the star that exploded weighs between 60 and 80 solar masses.

"Type Ic supernovas occur with the most massive of stars," says Van Dyk. "But we were surprised by how massive this one appears to be, and especially by the possibility of a massive double-star system as the progenitor. Although theories have existed for the last three decades that Type Ic supernovas could be the explosions of very massive single stars, alternative, more recent theories point toward stars of lower mass in binary systems as being the origins of these explosions."

Other supernova classes include Type Ia, which occur when white dwarfs in binary star systems explode (cosmologists used these to discover that our universe is not only expanding but accelerating apart). Type II, Type Ib, and Ic supernovas occur when massive stars collapse at the end of their lives, forming neutron stars or black holes. Type Ib and Ic differ from Type II in that their progenitor stars lose outer envelopes of material around their central cores before exploding. Type Ib and Ic supernovas differ from each other slightly in chemical composition.

Piecing together how each of these supernova types occurs provides a better understanding of the evolution of the most massive stars in our universe.

"The origins of such explosions are relevant to the entire astronomical community, not just supernova researchers," says Ori Fox from the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), a co-author on the study. "The results have implications on ideas from star formation to stellar evolution and feedback into the galaxy."

"Astronomers have been trying to find this progenitor for some 20 years," says Van Dyk. "Humans wouldn't be here without supernovas - they make the chemical elements from which we are made."

The astronomers say that they should be able to confirm with certainty whether they have identified the correct progenitor to the Type Ic explosion within a few years, using Hubble or the upcoming NASA James Webb Space Telescope, set to launch in 2021.

As the supernova fades as expected, the astronomers will have a clearer view of the area around it. If the luminous progenitor candidate was correctly identified in archival images, then it will have vanished and should not be seen in the new images. If the scientists still see the candidate progenitor, that means it was misidentified and some other hidden star was the culprit.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Astronomers find possible elusive star behind supernova

Astronomers may have finally uncovered the long-sought progenitor to a specific type of exploding star by sifting through NASA Hubble Space Telescope archival data. The supernova, called a Type Ic, is thought to detonate after its massive star has shed or been stripped of its outer layers of hydrogen and helium. These stars could be among the most massive known - at least 30 times heftier than our Sun. Even after shedding some of their material late in life, they are expected to be big and bright. So it was a mystery why astronomers had not been able to nab one of these stars in pre-explosion images. Finally, in 2017, astronomers got lucky. A nearby star ended its life as a Type Ic supernova. Two teams of astronomers pored through the archive of Hubble images to uncover the putative precursor star in pre-explosion photos taken in 2007. The supernova, cataloged as SN 2017ein, appeared near the center of the nearby spiral galaxy NGC 3938, located roughly 65 million light-years away. This potential discovery could yield insight into stellar evolution, including how the masses of stars are distributed when they are born in batches. "Finding a bona fide progenitor of a supernova Ic is a big prize of progenitor searching," said Schuyler Van Dyk of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, lead researcher of one of the teams. "We now have for the first time a clearly detected candidate object." His team's paper was published in June in The Astrophysical Journal.

A paper by a second team, which appeared in the Oct. 21, 2018, issue of the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, is consistent with the earlier team's conclusions.

"We were fortunate that the supernova was nearby and very bright, about 5 to 10 times brighter than other Type Ic supernovas, which may have made the progenitor easier to find," said Charles Kilpatrick of the University of California, Santa Cruz, leader of the second team.

"Astronomers have observed many Type Ic supernovas, but they are all too far away for Hubble to resolve. You need one of these massive, bright stars in a nearby galaxy to go off. It looks like most Type Ic supernovas are less massive and therefore less bright, and that's the reason we haven't been able to find them."

An analysis of the object's colors shows that it is blue and extremely hot. Based on that assessment, both teams suggest two possibilities for the source's identity. The progenitor could be a single hefty star between 45 and 55 times more massive than our Sun.

Another idea is that it could have been a massive binary-star system in which one of the stars weighs between 60 and 80 solar masses and the other roughly 48 suns. In this latter scenario, the stars are orbiting closely and interact with each other. The more massive star is stripped of its hydrogen and helium layers by the close companion and eventually explodes as a supernova.

The possibility of a massive double-star system is a surprise. "This is not what we would expect from current models, which call for lower-mass interacting binary progenitor systems," Van Dyk said.

Expectations on the identity of the progenitors of Type Ic supernovas have been a puzzle. Astronomers have known that the supernovas were deficient in hydrogen and helium and initially proposed that some hefty stars shed this material in a strong wind (a stream of charged particles) before they exploded. When they didn't find the progenitors stars, which should have been extremely massive and bright, they suggested a second method to produce the exploding stars that involves a pair of close-orbiting, lower-mass binary stars.

In this scenario, the heftier star is stripped of its hydrogen and helium by its companion. But the "stripped" star is still massive enough to eventually explode as a Type Ic supernova.

"Disentangling these two scenarios for producing Type Ic supernovas impacts our understanding of stellar evolution and star formation, including how the masses of stars are distributed when they are born, and how many stars form in interacting binary systems," explained Ori Fox of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, a member of Van Dyk's team. "And those are questions that not just astronomers studying supernovas want to know, but all astronomers are after."

Type Ic supernovas are just one class of exploding star. They account for about 20% of massive stars that explode from the collapse of their cores.

The teams caution that they won't be able to confirm the source's identity until the supernova fades in about two years. The astronomers hope to use either Hubble or the upcoming NASA James Webb Space Telescope to see whether the candidate progenitor star has disappeared or has significantly dimmed. They also will be able to separate the supernova's light from that of stars in its environment to calculate a more accurate measurement of the object's brightness and mass.

SN 2017ein was discovered in May 2017 by Tenagra Observatories in Arizona. But it took the sharp resolution of Hubble to pinpoint the exact location of the possible source. Van Dyk's team imaged the young supernova in June 2017 with Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3. The astronomers used that image to pinpoint the candidate progenitor star nestled in one of the host galaxy's spiral arms in archival Hubble photos taken in December 2007 by the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2.

Kilpatrick's group also observed the supernova in June 2017 in infrared images from one of the 10-meter telescopes at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. The team then analyzed the same archival Hubble photos as Van Dyk's team to uncover the possible source.

Friday, November 16, 2018

KazSTSat and VESTA due to lift-off on Spaceflight's SSO-A SmallSat Express Mission

KazSTSat and VESTA, two small satellites designed and manufactured at Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL), are due to launch on Spaceflight's SSO-A SmallSat Express Mission on board a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base later this month. KazSTSat is a small Earth observation satellite jointly developed by SSTL and JV Ghalam LLP, a joint venture between JSC "National Company Kazakhstan Garysh Sapary" (KGS) and Airbus. The satellite has a mass of 105kg and will acquire image data at 18.7 m GSD with a swath width of 275 km. The spacecraft carries several experimental and demonstration units, including a beyond diffraction limit imager, a sun sensor, and a novel OBCARM. KazSTSat will be operated by Ghalam, using a fully virtualized ground segment with S/X-band software defined back-ends deployed at KSAT ground stations in Svalbard and a technology demonstration ground station in Astana. VESTA is a 3U nanosatellite technology demonstration mission that will test a new two-way VHF Data Exchange System (VDES) payload developed by Honeywell for the exactEarth advanced maritime satellite constellation. The 4kg satellite has 3-axis pointing capability, an SEU tolerant on-board computer, VxWorks operating system and also flies a Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) VHF deployable antenna system developed by Innovative Solutions in Space for the VDES transceiver.

VESTA will be operated in orbit by SSTL, with the payload data being downlinked directly in S-Band to Goonhilly Earth Station.

The development of VESTA was co-funded by the UK Space Agency through its National Space Technology Programme (NSTP) which stimulates the growth and development of the UK space sector through investing in technology development. The project was led by Honeywell.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Orion recovery team: ready to 'rock and roll'

A NASA and Department of Defense team returned from a week of training at sea to improve joint landing and recovering operations planned for crew aboard the agency's Orion spacecraft from future deep space exploration missions. Departing from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the Exploration Ground Systems' team embarked on the USS John P. Murtha, an amphibious U.S. Navy ship, in the Pacific Ocean with the main goal of ensuring all of their recovery equipment was up to the task. This round of testing was known as Underway Recovery Test-7, or URT-7. Recovery ground support equipment includes the Orion Recovery Cradle Assembly, or ORCA, the cradle in which the spacecraft will ultimately set down; winch and rigging lines lovingly referred to as LLAMAs, short for Line Load Attenuating Mechanism Assembly; and even seemingly small items, such as tow pins. But ensuring all of the equipment works as planned and without damage to the spacecraft is no small task. The integrated recovery team worked in tandem to put the equipment through its paces this past week - and NASA's Jeremy Parr, lead design engineer, was on hand to evaluate testing. "We had an amazing week," Parr said when all the testing was done and the ship was headed back to shore. "From start to finish, we had some bumps, we took it slow and had some training days, but by the end of the week we were having almost perfect runs. And that's because of the sailors and LLAMA operators - everyone was working together as a team."

For the past five years, Parr and others have been working on the recovery concept. With the exception of the winch's control system, everything has been designed and built in-house at Kennedy under Parr's leadership - and it all passed muster.

The entire Landing and Recovery Team is led by NASA's Melissa Jones. During URT-7, she was pleased to see all of the team's hard work pay off. "Testing this week has gone extremely well," she said.

The team performed the first complete recovery at night, which lasted until the wee hours of the morning. Jones chocked that up to lessons learned on possible complications of night operations and working with the ship and divers out in the open water in less-than-optimal conditions.

"The team continues to amaze me with their intelligence, determination, and tireless work ethic," Jones said. "A huge thanks to the crew of the USS John P. Murtha for their help and hospitality. The success of this week would not have been possible without their positivity and can-do attitude."

The crew aren't the only ones with a positive attitude. Parr and the rest of the team are heading back to Kennedy with a renewed sense of accomplishment.

"I now have complete confidence in every piece of hardware that we have," Parr said. "We're ready to rock and roll for the recovery of Orion after Exploration Mission-1."

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Evidence for ancient glaciation on Pluto

A letter authored by SETI Institute scientist Oliver White was published by Nature Astronomy today. Co-authors included researchers Jeff Moore, Tanguy Bertrand and Kimberly Ennico at NASA's Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. The letter "Washboard and Fluted Terrains on Pluto as Evidence for Ancient Glaciation" focuses on these distinctive landscapes that border the vast nitrogen ice plains of Sputnik Planitia along its northwest margin (Figure 1) and which are amongst the most enigmatic landforms yet seen on Pluto. These terrains consist of parallel to sub-parallel ridges that display a remarkably consistent ENE-WSW orientation, a configuration that does not readily point to a simple analogous terrestrial or planetary process or landform. The aim of Dr. White's research is to use mapping and analysis of the morphometry (the process of measuring the external shape and dimensions of landforms) and distribution of the ridges to determine their origin and to understand their significance within the overall geologic history of Pluto. The work used imaging data returned by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, which flew past Pluto in 2015, as well as topographic maps generated from this data. Washboard and fluted ridges are defined primarily by their topographic context: washboard ridges occur in level settings within valley floors, basins and uplands, whereas fluted ridges are seen on steeper spurs, massifs (or compact group of mountains) and crater walls that separate basins and valleys.

The washboard and fluted terrain is seen up close in Figure 2, in which illumination is from the top. They occur at the location on Sputnik Planitia's perimeter where elevations and slopes leading into the surrounding uplands are lowest, and also where a major tectonic system coincides with the edge of Sputnik Planitia.

The low elevation of the area makes it a natural setting for past coverage by nitrogen ice glaciers, as indicated by modeling of volatile behavior on Pluto performed by Dr. Bertrand at Ames. Through comparison of the washboard and fluted texture with parallel chains of elongated sublimation pits (depressions in the surface formed where ice turns directly into a gas) seen in southern Sputnik Planitia, the ridges are interpreted to represent water ice debris liberated by tectonism of underlying crust.

This water ice debris was buoyant in the denser, pitted glacial nitrogen ice that is interpreted to have formerly covered this area, and collected on the floors of the elongated pits. After the nitrogen ice receded via sublimation, the debris was left as the aligned ridges, mimicking the sublimation texture - washboard ridges where deposited on flat terrain, and fluted ridges where deposited on steeper slopes.

Crater surface age estimates indicate that the washboard and fluted ridges were deposited early in Pluto's history, after formation of the Sputnik basin by a giant impact ~4 billion years ago. Acting as a giant cold trap, it was to this basin that surface nitrogen ice across Pluto migrated over some tens of millions of years, thereby causing the recession of nitrogen glaciers from upland areas such as that now occupied by the washboard and fluted terrain.

The precise mechanism that elongated the sublimation pits and defined their strikingly consistent orientation regardless of latitude or location relative to Sputnik Planitia is elusive, but is consistent with a global-scale process.

A constraint is that true polar wander solutions for Pluto (provided by co-author Dr. James Keane of Caltech) indicate that the ridges can never have all been oriented N-S at any time in Pluto's history. This suggests a cause for the alignment that is not exogenic (i.e. the orientation is likely not governed solely by solar illumination, which would cause all the sublimation pits to align N-S).

Dr. White summarizes the findings as follows: "These terrains constitute an entirely new category of glacial landform that is unique to Pluto, and represent geological evidence that nitrogen ice glaciation was more widespread across Pluto in its early history prior to the formation of the Sputnik basin. The dense spacing of the ridges allows us to precisely map out the past coverage of the glaciation that deposited them, which extended across at least 70,000 km^2 of Pluto's uplands (larger than the state of West Virginia)."

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

First Angara A5V Heavy-Class Rocket Launch to Take Place in 2026 - Roscosmos

The first heavy-lift Angara A5V carrier rocket equipped with a hydrogen space tug will be launched from the Vostochny space center in Russia's Far East in 2026, Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin said on Sunday. The rocket's launch was initially set to take place in 2027, according to the Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center. "On Vostochny [space center]... 2026 - the beginning of flight tests of Angara A5V with a hydrogen stage," Rogozin wrote on Twitter. The Angara family of space launch vehicles is designed to provide lifting capabilities of between 2 and 40.5 metric tonnes into low Earth orbit. It has been in development since 1995 and was the first orbit-capable rocket developed by Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union to replace the older Proton-M rockets.

SOFIA unravels the mysterious formation of star clusters

The sun, like all stars, was born in a giant cold cloud of molecular gas and dust. It may have had dozens or even hundreds of stellar siblings - a star cluster - but these early companions are now scattered throughout our Milky Way galaxy. Although the remnants of this particular creation event have long since dispersed, the process of star birth continues today within our galaxy and beyond. Star clusters are conceived in the hearts of optically dark clouds where the early phases of formation have historically been hidden from view. But these cold, dusty clouds shine brightly in the infrared, so telescopes like the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, SOFIA, can begin to reveal these long-held secrets. Traditional models claim that the force of gravity may be solely responsible for the formation of stars and star clusters. More recent observations suggest that magnetic fields, turbulence, or both are also involved and may even dominate the creation process. But just what triggers the events that lead to the formation of star clusters? Astronomers using SOFIA's instrument, the German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies, known as GREAT, have found new evidence that star clusters form through collisions between giant molecular clouds. "Stars are powered by nuclear reactions that create new chemical elements," said Thomas Bisbas, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia, and the lead author on the paper describing these new results. "The very existence of life on earth is the product of a star that exploded billions of years ago, but we still don't know how these stars - including our own sun - form."

Researchers studied the distribution and motion of ionized carbon around a molecular cloud where stars can form. There appear to be two distinct components of molecular gas colliding with each other at speeds of more than 20,000 miles per hour. The distribution and velocity of the molecular and ionized gases are consistent with simulations of cloud collisions, which indicate that star clusters form as the gas is compressed in the shock wave created as the clouds collide.

"These star formation models are difficult to assess observationally," said Jonathan Tan, a professor at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, and the University of Virginia, and a lead researcher on the paper. "We're at a fascinating point in the project, where the data we are getting with SOFIA can really test the simulations."

While there is not yet scientific consensus on the mechanism responsible for driving the creation of star clusters, these SOFIA observations have helped scientists take an important step toward unraveling the mystery. This field of research remains an active one, and these data provide crucial evidence in favor of the collision model. The authors expect future observations will test this scenario to determine if the process of cloud collisions is unique to this region, more widespread, or even a universal mechanism for the formation of star clusters.

"Our next step is to use SOFIA to observe a larger number of molecular clouds that are forming star clusters," added Tan. "Only then can we understand how common cloud collisions are for triggering star birth in our galaxy."

SOFIA is a Boeing 747SP jetliner modified to carry a 106-inch diameter telescope. It is a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center, DLR. NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley manages the SOFIA program, science and mission operations in cooperation with the Universities Space Research Association headquartered in Columbia, Maryland, and the German SOFIA Institute (DSI) at the University of Stuttgart. The aircraft is maintained and operated from NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center Hangar 703, in Palmdale, California.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Market for 3,300 satellites worth $284 Billion over next decade

According to the 21st edition of its report Satellites to be Built and Launched over the Next 10 Years, Euroconsult anticipates that 330 satellites with a mass over 50 kg will be launched on average each year by 2027 for government agencies and commercial organizations worldwide. This is a threefold increase over the past decade as the satellite market experiences a paradigm shift with the rise of small satellites and large constellations. "The satellite sector is undergoing a massive transformation as more commercial and governmental entities take advantage of constellations to introduce new satellite services on Earth," said Rachel Villain, Principal Advisor at Euroconsult and editor of the report. "We anticipate that over 40 constellations of various sizes and capabilities will launch about 2,300 satellites into low or medium Earth orbits for services as diverse as communications, navigation, Earth observation, meteorology and data collection from Earth sensors." The 3,300 satellites over 50 kg to be launched over 2018-2027 should represent a market of $284 billion for the space industry in terms of building and launching, up 25% over that of the past decade. At the same time, a price decrease is visible in the satellite industry, driven by the commercial constellations of smallsats introducing new production and operation concepts including economies of scale, softwarization, and vertical integration up to data analytics.

Governments will remain the largest customer of the satellite and launch industries with 1,300+ satellites to be launched over the next 10 years for about 70 countries, for a market value of over $200 billion.

Governments dominate the space industry as established space countries replace and expand their in-orbit satellite systems, and more countries acquire their first operational satellite systems, usually for communications, Earth observation and imagery intelligence. 85% of the government market will remain concentrated in the 10 countries with an established space industry (the U.S., Russia, China, Japan, India and the top five European countries).

The other 60 countries invest in satellite systems to develop domestic space capabilities, or to acquire their first systems (usually for communications, Earth observation and imagery intelligence) in order to be more responsive to social and economic development.

In the commercial space sector, Euroconsult believes about 50 companies will launch almost 2,000 satellites, of which 1,700 units will be for 22 commercial constellations (of which one single constellation accounts for 70%).

Commercial space still means communications and broadcasting satellites in geostationary orbit; these satellites represent almost 50% of the $70 billion of commercial revenues expected over the decade.

The two other large commercial markets are for non-geostationary orbit satellite constellations for communications (25% of revenues) and Earth observation (11% of revenues). New commercial markets are emerging for in-orbit services such as life extension, and for in-orbit tourism (mostly lunar).

Windy with a chance of magnetic storms - space weather science with cluster

Space weather is no abstract concept - it may happen in space, but its effects on Earth can be significant. To help better forecast these effects, ESA's Cluster mission, a quartet of spacecraft that was launched in 2000, is currently working to understand how our planet is connected to its magnetic environment, and unravelling the complex relationship between the Earth and its parent star. Despite appearances, the space surrounding our planet is far from empty. The Earth is surrounded by various layers of atmosphere, is constantly bathed in a flow of charged particles streaming out from the Sun, known as the solar wind, and sends its own magnetic field lines out into the cosmos. This field floods our immediate patch of space, acting as a kind of shield against any extreme and potentially damaging radiation that might come our way. It also defines our planet's magnetosphere, a region of space dominated by Earth's magnetic field and filled with energy that is topped up by the solar wind and sporadically released into the near-Earth environment. With this comes 'weather'. We occasionally experience magnetic storms and events that disturb and interact with Earth's radiation belts, atmosphere, and planetary surface. One of the most famous examples of this is the auroras that Earth experiences at its poles. These shimmering sheets of colour form as the solar wind disrupts and breaches the upper layers of our atmosphere.

Space weather has a real impact on our activities on Earth, and poses a significant risk to space-farers - robotic and human alike. Sudden flurries of high-energy particles emanating from the Sun can contain up to 100 million tons of material; this can penetrate spacecraft walls or affect their electronics, disable satellites, and take down terrestrial electrical transformers and power grids. There are currently about 1800 active satellites circling our planet, and our dependence on space technology is only growing stronger.

"This highlights a pressing need for more accurate space weather forecasts," says Philippe Escoubet, Project Scientist for ESA's Cluster mission. "To understand and predict this weather, we need to know more about how the Earth and the Sun are connected, and what the magnetic environment around the Earth looks and acts like. This is what Cluster is helping us to do."

Various spacecraft are investigating the magnetic environment around the Earth and how it interacts with the solar wind. Efforts have been internationally collaborative, from observatories including ESA's Cluster and Swarm missions, NASA's Magnetospheric MultiScale mission (MMS), the Van Allen Probes, and THEMIS (Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms), and the Japanese (JAXA/ISAS) Arase and Geotail missions.

Cluster comprises four identical spacecraft that fly in a pyramid-like formation, and is able to gather incredibly detailed data on the complex structure and fluctuations of our magnetic environment.

For nearly two decades, this quartet has mapped our magnetosphere and pinpointed flows of cold plasma and interactions with the solar wind, probed our magnetotail - an extension of the magnetosphere that stretches beyond the Earth in the direction opposite to the Sun. The mission also modelled the small-scale turbulence and intricate dynamics of the solar wind itself, and helped to explain the mysteries of Earth's auroras.

While this back catalogue of discoveries is impressive enough, Cluster is still producing new insights, especially in the realm of space weather. Recently, the mission has been instrumental in building more accurate models of our planet's magnetic field both close to Earth (at so-called geosynchronous altitudes) and at large distances from Earth's surface - no mean feat.

These recent models were based on data from Cluster and other missions mentioned above, and put together by scientists including Nikolai Tsyganenko and Varvara Andreeva of Saint-Petersburg State University, Russia. They provide a way to trace magnetic field lines and determine how they evolve and change during storms, and can thus create a magnetic map of all the satellites currently in orbit around the Earth down to low altitudes

In addition, ESA's Swarm mission is also providing insight into our planet's magnetic field. Launched in 2013 and comprising three identical satellites, Swarm has been measuring precisely the magnetic signals that stem from Earth's core, mantle, crust and oceans, as well as from the ionosphere and magnetosphere.

"This kind of research is invaluable," adds Escoubet. "Unexpected or extreme outbursts of space weather can badly damage any satellites we have in orbit around the Earth, so being able to keep better track of them - while simultaneously gaining a better understanding of our planet's dynamic magnetic field structure - is key to their safety."

Cluster also recently tracked the impact of huge outbursts of highly energetic particles and photons from the outer layers of the Sun known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs). The data showed that CMEs are able to trigger both strong and weak geomagnetic storms as they meet and are deformed at Earth's bow shock - the boundary where the solar wind meets the outer limits of our magnetosphere.

Such storms are extreme events. Cluster explored a specific storm that occurred in September 2017, triggered by two consecutive CMEs separated by 24 hours. It studied how the storm affected the flow of charged particles leaving the polar regions of the ionosphere, a layer of Earth's upper atmosphere, above around 100 km, and found this flow to have increased around the polar cap by more than 30 times. This enhanced flow has consequences for space weather, such as increased drag for satellites, and is thought to be a result of the ionosphere being heated by multiple intense solar flares.

The mission has observed how various other phenomena affect our magnetosphere, too. It spotted tiny, hot, local anomalies in the flow of solar wind that caused the entire magnetosphere to vibrate, and watched the magnetosphere growing and shrinking significantly in size back in 2013, interacting with the radiation belts that encircle our planet as it did so.

Importantly, it also measured the speed of the solar wind at the 'nose' of the bow shock. These observations connect data gathered near Earth to those obtained by Sun-watching satellites some 1.5 million km away at a location known as Lagrangian Point 1 - such as the ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) and NASA's Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE). These data offer all-important evidence for solar wind dynamics in this complex and unclear region of space.

"All of this, and more, has really made it possible to better understand the dynamics of Earth's magnetic field, and how it relates to the space weather we see," says Escoubet. "Cluster has produced such wonderful science in the past 18 years - but there's still so much more to come."

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Landing site selected for UK's ExoMars rover in 2021

A group of scientists and engineers in Leicester has recommended Oxia Planum as the best landing site for the British-built Mars rover. Due to land in 2021, the ExoMars rover will be the first of its kind to travel across the Martian surface and drill down to determine if evidence of life is buried underground. Dr. Graham Turnock, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency said: "After the Earth, Mars is the most habitable planet in the solar system, so it's a perfect destination to explore the possibility of life on other planets, as well as the history of our own." Both of the potential landing sites - Oxia Planum and Mawrth Vallis - preserve a rich record of geological history from the planet's wetter past, approximately four billion years ago, however the potential for science return had to be balanced with the prospect of landing safely. Professor John Bridges, from the Space Research Centre, University of Leicester, a member of the Landing Site Selection Working Group, explains why Oxia Planum has been recommended: "After over 4 years of careful study of HiRISE and more recently CaSSIS images Oxia Planum was chosen because scientists were convinced that its fine grained sediments, deposited during the ancient Noachian epoch, were ideally suited for the exobiology rover. "With an enormous catchment area the sediments will have captured organics from a wide variety of environments over a long period of time, including areas where life may have existed. The fine sediments should also be ideal for the ExoMars drill - it aims to get to 2 metres depth.

"Remote identification with the Mars Express and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Infrared spectrometers shows the presence of clays and other minerals giving clues to its aqueous history. A large group of scientists have been working on proposing, characterising and down selecting the sites, all of which had fascinating aspects, but Oxia Planum is the clear winner on both science and engineering constraints."

The UK Space Agency is the second largest European contributor to the ExoMars mission, having invested euro 287 million in the mission and Pounds 14 million on the instruments. This, in addition to successful negotiations with the European Space Agency (ESA), secured key mission contracts for the UK space sector.

Sue Horne, Head of Space Exploration at the UK Space Agency said: "I have been working on ExoMars for over 10 years and am amazed at the ingenuity and dedication of UK engineers and scientists in building the rover and instruments that will work in the extreme environment of Mars. Our end goal is in sight and it is getting very exciting."

The government's modern Industrial Strategy is backing businesses to succeed by increasing investment in science, because countries that invest in ideas create more opportunities for business. The ambition is for the UK be the world's most innovative economy - and the development of the ExoMars rover in the UK is a part of this ambition.

Airbus Defence and Space in Stevenage is leading the build of the rover while the UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory is leading on a key instrument known as the PanCam, a high-resolution 3D camera which will be used to look at the terrain and rocks to try to detect signs of life. The University of Leicester and Teledyne e2v are working on the Raman Spectrometer with STFC RAL Space providing some of the electronics, including the data processing board.

The recommendation was made following a two-day meeting held at the National Space Centre in Leicester, UK, which saw experts from the Mars science community, industry, and ExoMars project present and discuss the scientific merits of the sites alongside the engineering and technical constraints. The Leicester recommendation will be reviewed internally by ESA and Roscosmos with an official confirmation expected mid-2019.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Spaceflight arranges launch of 12 satellites aboard India's PSLV C43

Spaceflight, the leading satellite rideshare and mission management provider, reports it will launch 12 spacecraft in November from India's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). Payloads aboard the mission include Fleet Space Technologies' Centauri I, Harris Corporation's HSAT, Spire's LEMUR satellites, and BlackSky's Global-1 microsatellite. 'In addition to securing capacity aboard the launch vehicle, Spaceflight executed the integration of most of the payloads at its Seattle integration facility. The payloads are currently en route to PSLV's launch facility at India's Satish Dhawan Space Center for a launch in late November. "This is Spaceflight's seventh launch with PSLV and following this mission, we will have sent 66 spacecraft to orbit aboard PSLV rockets," said Curt Blake, president of Spaceflight. "We value our partnership with such a reliable launch vehicle provider. PSLV's routine launches enable us to provide satellite developers access to space and meet the growing demand from the smallsat industry." Among the payloads aboard the mission is Fleet Space Technologies' second satellite. The fast-growing Internet of Things (IoT) company's nanosatellite will establish a global network that will connect the world's IoT-connected sensors and devices. Over the coming years, the Australian business will create a constellation of nanosatellites to create a scalable, global network to help connect many of the 75 billion sensors expected to dot the world over the next decade. The nanosatellites will bring mass-scale efficiencies for industries such as agriculture, mining, and logistics by enabling businesses to gather complex, revealing data to improve operations.

"The launch of our satellite is a huge milestone and we are thrilled to work alongside some of the world's leading space innovators," said Fleet Space Technologies co-founder and CEO Flavia Tata Nardini.

"Spaceflight and launch vehicle providers such as PSLV, are helping to enable frequent and reliable access to space, which will be critical as we continue to build our constellation."

Apart from PSLV, Spaceflight works with nearly every global launch vehicle, including the Falcon 9, Antares, Dnepr, Electron, Vega, Soyuz, and LauncherOne, offering customers the most options for getting to space.

By working with a range of vehicle providers, Spaceflight increases flexibility and provides satellite developers a broad range of launch options should delays occur. Additionally, the smallsat rideshare service model helps organizations reach a desired orbit at a much lower cost than buying their own launch vehicle.

Spaceflight has negotiated the launch of more than 150 satellites on behalf of its customers and has contracts to deploy nearly 100 more through the remainder of 2018. The company plans to coordinate and deploy its largest launch to date in 2018 with its first dedicated rideshare mission aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Multimessenger links to NASA's Fermi Mission show how luck favors the prepared

In 2017, NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope played a pivotal role in two important breakthroughs occurring just five weeks apart. But what might seem like extraordinary good luck is really the product of research, analysis, preparation and development extending back more than a century. On Aug. 17, 2017, Fermi detected the first light ever seen from a source of gravitational waves - ripples in space-time produced, in this event, by the merger of two superdense neutron stars. Just five weeks later, a single high-energy particle discovered by the National Science Foundation's (NSF) IceCube Neutrino Observatory was traced to a distant galaxy powered by a supermassive black hole thanks to a gamma-ray flare observed by Fermi. "For millennia, light was our only source of information about the universe," said Julie McEnery, the Fermi project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "The recent discoveries connect light, our best-known cosmic courier, to gravitational waves and particles like neutrinos - new messengers delivering different kinds of information that we're just beginning to explore." The origins of these discoveries stretch back to cutting-edge research as long ago as 1887. That's when physicists Albert Michelson and Edward Morley conducted an experiment to detect a substance, called the aether, which was postulated as a medium that permitted light waves to travel through space.

As their experiment showed and many since have confirmed, the aether doesn't exist. But the negative result proved to be one of the inspirations for Albert Einstein's 1905 special theory of relativity. He generalized this into a full-fledged theory of gravity in 1915, one that predicted the existence of gravitational waves.

A century later, on Sept. 14, 2015, the NSF's Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detected these space-time vibrations for the first time as waves from the merger of two black holes reached Earth. In between came a steady stream of advances, including lasers, improved instrumentation and increasingly more powerful computers and software.

"Just as inventing the detector technologies has taken decades, so too has the theoretical and computational framework for analyzing and interpreting multimessenger observations," said Tyson Littenberg, the principal investigator of the LIGO research group at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

"We went through countless simulations to test new ideas and improve on existing algorithms so that we were prepared to make the most out of the first observations, and that basic research and development work continues."

Until 2005, it wasn't even possible to simulate in detail what happens when a pair of orbiting black holes coalesce. The breakthrough came when separate teams at Goddard and the University of Texas at Brownsville independently developed new computational methods that overcame all previous hurdles. An accurate understanding of gravitational-wave signals was one important step in evolving techniques designed to rapidly detect and characterize them.

"Another fundamental development was the highly optimized analysis pipelines and information technology infrastructure that can compare the theoretical model with the data, recognize the presence of a signal, calculate the location of the source on the sky and format the information in a way that the rest of the astronomical community could use," explained Tito Dal Canton, a NASA Postdoctoral Program Fellow and a member of a LIGO research group at Goddard led by Jordan Camp.

Astronomers need to know about short-lived events as soon as possible so they can bring to bear a wide array of telescopes in space and on the ground. Back in 1993, scientists at Goddard and Marshall began developing an automated system for distributing the locations of gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) - distant, powerful explosions that typically last a minute or less - to astronomers around the world in real time.

Located at Goddard and led by Principal Investigator Scott Barthelmy, the Gamma-ray Coordinates Network/Transient Astronomy Network now distributes alerts from many space missions as well as ground-based instruments like LIGO and IceCube.

Ghost particles

The historical thread for neutrinos began with French physicist Henri Becquerel and his 1895 discovery of radioactivity. In 1930, after studying a radioactive process called beta decay, Wolfang Pauli suggested it likely involved a new subatomic particle, later dubbed the neutrino. We now know neutrinos possess little mass, travel almost as fast as light, come in three varieties and are among the most abundant particles in the universe. But because they don't readily interact with other matter, neutrinos weren't discovered until 1956.

In 1912, Victor Hess discovered that charged particles, now called cosmic rays, continually enter Earth's atmosphere from every direction, which means space is filled with them. When cosmic rays strike air molecules, the collision produces a shower of particles - including neutrinos - that rains down through the atmosphere. Searching for astronomical neutrino sources meant placing experiments underground to reduce interference from cosmic rays and building very large detectors to tease out the weak signals of publicity-shy neutrinos.

Neutrinos produced by nuclear reactions inside the Sun's core were first detected in 1968 thanks to an experiment using 100,000 gallons of dry-cleaning fluid located deep in a South Dakota gold mine. Discovering the next astronomical neutrino source would take another 19 years.

Supernova 1987A, a stellar explosion in a nearby galaxy, remains the brightest and closest supernova seen in over 400 years and is the first for which the original star could be identified on pre-explosion images.

Theorists anticipated that neutrinos, which escape a collapsing star more readily than light, would be the first signal from a new supernova. And hours before 1987A's visible light arrived at Earth, experiments in Japan, the U.S. and Russia detected a brief burst of neutrinos, making the supernova the first source of neutrinos identified beyond the solar system.

"If none of these experiments was operating at the time, the neutrino signal would have passed by unnoticed," said Francis Halzen, the principal investigator of IceCube, which is essentially a neutrino telescope build into a cubic kilometer of ice at the South Pole.

"It isn't enough to develop the technology, refine theories or even construct a detector. We need to be making observations as often as we can for the best chance of catching brief, rare and scientifically interesting events. Both Fermi and IceCube are operating continuously, making uninterrupted observations of the sky."

Light fantastic

The third historical thread belongs to gamma rays, the highest-energy form of light, discovered in 1900 by the French physicist Paul Villard. When a gamma ray of sufficient energy interacts with matter, it provides a perfect demonstration of Einstein's most famous equation, E=mc2, by instantly transforming into particles - an electron and its antimatter counterpart, a positron. Conversely, crash an electron and a positron together and a gamma ray results.

NASA's Explorer 11 satellite, launched in 1961, detected the first gamma rays in space. In 1963, the U.S. Air Force began launching a series of satellites as part of Project Vela. These increasingly sophisticated satellites were designed to verify compliance with an international treaty that banned nuclear weapons tests in space or in the atmosphere. But starting in July 1967, scientists became aware the Vela satellites were seeing brief gamma-ray events that were clearly unrelated to weapons tests.

These explosions were GRBs, an entirely new phenomenon now known to mark the death of certain types of massive stars or the merger of orbiting neutron stars. NASA further explored the gamma-ray sky with the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, which operated from 1991 to 2000 and recorded thousands of GRBs.

Starting in 1997, critical observations by the Italian-Dutch BeppoSAX satellite proved that GRBs were located far beyond our galaxy. Compton was succeeded by NASA's Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory in 2004 and Fermi in 2008, missions that continue exploring the high-energy sky and that follow up on LIGO and IceCube alerts.

"In the fields of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind," noted Louis Pasteur, the French chemist and microbiologist, in an 1854 lecture. Supported by decades of scientific discoveries and technological innovation, the burgeoning field of multimessenger astronomy is increasingly prepared for its next stroke of luck.

NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope is an astrophysics and particle physics partnership, developed in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy and with important contributions from academic institutions and partners in France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Sweden and the United States.