Thursday, December 26, 2019

Breathable atmospheres may be more common in the universe than we first thought

The existence of habitable alien worlds has been a mainstay of popular culture for more than a century. In the 19th century, astronomers believed that Martians might be using canal-based transport links to traverse the red planet. Now, despite living in an age when scientists can study planets light years from our own solar system, most new research continues to diminish the chances of finding other worlds on which humans could live. The biggest stumbling block may be oxygen - human settlers would need a high oxygen atmosphere in which to breathe. So how were we so lucky to evolve on a planet with plenty of oxygen? The history of Earth's oceans and atmosphere suggests that the rise to present-day levels of O2 was pretty difficult. The current consensus is that Earth underwent a three-step rise in atmospheric and oceanic oxygen levels, the first being called the "Great Oxidation Event" at around 2.4 billion years ago. After that came the "Neoproterozoic Oxygenation Event" around 800 million years ago, and then finally the "Paleozoic Oxygenation Event" about 400 million years ago, when oxygen levels on Earth reached their modern peak of 21%. What happened during these three periods to increase oxygen levels is a matter for debate. One idea is that new organisms "bioengineered" the planet, restructuring the atmosphere and oceans through either their metabolisms or their lifestyles.

For example, the rise of land plants roughly 400 million years ago could have increased oxygen in the atmosphere through land-based photosynthesis, taking over from photosynthetic bacteria in the ocean which have been the main oxygen producers for most of Earth's history. Alternatively, plate tectonic changes or gigantic volcanic eruptions have also been linked to the Earth's oxygenation events.

This event-based history of how oxygen came to be so plentiful on Earth implies that we're very fortunate to be living on a high-oxygen world. If one volcanic eruption hadn't happened, or a certain type of organism hadn't evolved, then oxygen might have stalled at low levels.

But our latest research suggests that this isn't the case. We created a computer model of the Earth's carbon, oxygen and phosphorus cycles and found that the oxygen transitions can be explained by the inherent dynamics of our planet and likely didn't require any miraculous events.

Phosphorus - University of Leeds
One thing we think is missing from theories about Earth's oxygenation is phosphorus. This nutrient is very important for photosynthetic bacteria and algae in the ocean. How much marine phosphorous there is will ultimately control how much oxygen is produced on Earth. This is still true today - and has been so since the evolution of photosynthetic microbes some three billion years ago.

Photosynthesis in the ocean depends on phosphorus, but high phosphate levels also drive consumption of oxygen in the deep ocean through a process called eutrophication. When photosynthetic microbes die, they decompose, which consumes oxygen from the water. As oxygen levels fall, sediments tend to release even more phosphorus. This feedback loop rapidly removes oxygen. This meant that oxygen levels in the oceans were able to change rapidly, but they were buffered over long timescales by another process involving the Earth's mantle.

Throughout Earth's history, volcanic activity has released gases that react with and remove oxygen from the atmosphere. These gas fluxes have subsided over time due to Earth's mantle cooling, and our computer model suggests this slow reduction along with the initial evolution of photosynthetic life was all that was necessary to produce a series of step-change increases in oxygen levels.

These stepped increases bear a clear resemblance to the three-step rise in oxygen that has occurred throughout Earth's history. The model also supports our current understanding of ocean oxygenation, which appears to have involved numerous cycles of oxygenation and deoxygenation before the oceans became resiliently oxygenated as they are today.

What is really exciting about all of this is that the oxygenation pattern can be created without the need for difficult and complex evolutionary leaps forward, or circumstantial catastrophic volcanic or tectonic events. So it appears that Earth's oxygenation may have been inescapable once photosynthesis had evolved - and the chances of high oxygen worlds existing elsewhere could be much higher.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Boeing spacecraft lands in New Mexico after mission cut short

Boeing's new Starliner unmanned spacecraft returned to Earth on Sunday, landing in the New Mexico desert in the United States six days early after a clock problem scuppered a rendezvous with the International Space Station. NASA hailed the aborted flight as a success, despite its failure to reach the ISS on what was meant to be a final dress rehearsal before a crewed mission. Images broadcast by NASA showed the spacecraft touching down, cushioned by airbags, after a pre-dawn descent slowed by three large parachutes."We had some challenges, but a lot of things did in fact go right," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told reporters, describing the landing as an "absolute bull's-eye." "We did not make it to the International Space Station. We did not dock, but the spacecraft flew exceptionally well. We've got a lot of data to review." The Starliner capsule was launched Friday from Cape Canaveral in Florida, but shortly after separating from its Atlas V launch rocket, its thrusters failed to activate as planned, preventing it from reaching a high enough orbit. The space station orbits at an altitude of about 400 kilometers (250 miles) above sea level. As the craft had burned too much propellant, Boeing and NASA were forced to guide the Starliner back to Earth.

"Maybe it's acceptable to go next step -- fly the crew flight test, but we have to go through the data first," Steve Stich, deputy manager of NASA's Commercial Crew Program, said.

"We tested a majority of the core system of the vehicle... We had a little issue with the timer in the beginning."

The test flight was a key part of NASA's plans to end US dependence on Russia for space rides.

Its flight troubles also dealt a fresh reputational blow to Boeing, which faces a safety crisis in its commercial air division.

The company is reeling from two fatal crashes of its 737 Max airliner. The crashes, in October 2018 in Indonesia and in March 2019 in Ethiopia, claimed a total 346 lives.

Boeing plans to suspend production of the plane in January.

- Capsule named 'Calypso' -

The Starliner was able to establish a communications link with the ISS, and to test its docking mechanism, solar panels, batteries, thrusters and heat regulation system.

Its heat shield protected the capsule during re-entry, when temperatures outside the vehicle rose to over 1,600 degrees Celsius (2,900 degrees Fahrenheit) due to friction.

Before its descent, the Starliner was orbiting at an altitude of 250 kilometers (150 miles) and traveling at over 28,000 kilometers an hour (17,400 mph).

In a test in November, only two of the three parachutes opened, although they proved sufficient for the landing.

NASA said the Starliner had landed in excellent condition and would now be refurbished ahead of a decision on whether to carry out another test flight or to trust that the vehicle was safe to carry astronauts.

The capsule has been named "Calypso" after French marine explorer Jacques Cousteau's ship, NASA added.

Starliner's first crewed flight had been scheduled for early 2020. That development was much-anticipated as NASA has been forced to rely on Russian Soyuz rockets to transport its astronauts to the space station since the Space Shuttle program was shuttered in 2011 after 30 years.

Under former president Barack Obama, NASA opted for a shift in how it operates.

Instead of owning the hardware, it hired private companies to take over, awarding Boeing and SpaceX billions of dollars to develop "Made in the USA" solutions.

The Crew Dragon, developed by SpaceX, is expected to be ready for launch next year.

NASA has committed to pay $8 billion to Boeing and SpaceX, which in return are to deliver six trips carrying four astronauts each from now to 2024.

Starliner carried a test dummy called "Rosie" after "Rosie the Riveter," the star of a campaign aimed at recruiting women to munitions factory jobs during World War II.

Rosie was packed with sensors to verify the voyage would be safe for future teams of humans.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Mars 2020 Rover Completes Its First Drive

NASA's next Mars rover has passed its first driving test. A preliminary assessment of its activities on Dec. 17, 2019, found that the rover checked all the necessary boxes as it rolled forward and backward and pirouetted in a clean room at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The next time the Mars 2020 rover drives, it will be rolling over Martian soil. "Mars 2020 has earned its driver's license," said Rich Rieber, the lead mobility systems engineer for Mars 2020. "The test unambiguously proved that the rover can operate under its own weight and demonstrated many of the autonomous-navigation functions for the first time. This is a major milestone for Mars 2020." Scheduled to launch in July or August 2020, the Mars 2020 mission will search for signs of past microbial life, characterize Mars' climate and geology, collect samples for future return to Earth, and pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet. It is scheduled to land in an area of Mars known as Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021. "To fulfill the mission's ambitious science goals, we need the Mars 2020 rover to cover a lot of ground," said Katie Stack Morgan, Mars 2020 deputy project scientist.

Mars 2020 is designed to make more driving decisions for itself than any previous rover. It is equipped with higher-resolution, wide-field-of-view color navigation cameras, an extra computer "brain" for processing images and making maps, and more sophisticated auto-navigation software. It also has wheels that have been redesigned for added durability.

All these upgrades allow the rover to average about 650 feet (200 meters) per Martian day. To put that into perspective, the longest drive in a single Martian day was 702 feet (214 meters), a record set by NASA's Opportunity rover. Mars 2020 is designed to average the current planetwide record drive distance.

In a 10-plus-hour marathon on Tuesday that demonstrated all the systems working in concert, the rover steered, turned and drove in 3-foot (1-meter) increments over small ramps covered with special static-control mats. Since these systems performed well under Earth's gravity, engineers expect them to perform well under Mars' gravity, which is only three-eighths as strong. The rover was also able to gather data with the Radar Imager for Mars' Subsurface Experiment (RIMFAX).

"A rover needs to rove, and Mars 2020 did that yesterday," said John McNamee, Mars 2020 project manager. "We can't wait to put some red Martian dirt under its wheels."

Monday, December 16, 2019

NASA's Juno navigators enable Jupiter cyclone discovery

Jupiter's south pole has a new cyclone. The discovery of the massive Jovian tempest occurred on Nov. 3, 2019, during the most recent data-gathering flyby of Jupiter by NASA's Juno spacecraft. It was the 22nd flyby during which the solar-powered spacecraft collected science data on the gas giant, soaring only 2,175 miles (3,500 kilometers) above its cloud tops. The flyby also marked a victory for the mission team, whose innovative measures kept the solar-powered spacecraft clear of what could have been a mission-ending eclipse. "The combination of creativity and analytical thinking has once again paid off big time for NASA," said Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. "We realized that the orbit was going to carry Juno into Jupiter's shadow, which could have grave consequences because we're solar powered. No sunlight means no power, so there was real risk we might freeze to death. While the team was trying to figure out how to conserve energy and keep our core heated, the engineers came up with a completely new way out of the problem: Jump Jupiter's shadow. It was nothing less than a navigation stroke of genius. Lo and behold, first thing out of the gate on the other side, we make another fundamental discovery."

When Juno first arrived at Jupiter in July 2016, its infrared and visible-light cameras discovered giant cyclones encircling the planet's poles - nine in the north and six in the south. Were they, like their Earthly siblings, a transient phenomenon, taking only weeks to develop and then ebb? Or could these cyclones, each nearly as wide as the continental U.S., be more permanent fixtures?

With each flyby, the data reinforced the idea that five windstorms were swirling in a pentagonal pattern around a central storm at the south pole and that the system seemed stable. None of the six storms showed signs of yielding to allow other cyclones to join in.

"It almost appeared like the polar cyclones were part of a private club that seemed to resist new members," said Bolton.

Then, during Juno's 22nd science pass, a new, smaller cyclone churned to life and joined the fray.

The Life of a Young Cyclone
"Data from Juno's Jovian Infrared Auroral Mapper [JIRAM] instrument indicates we went from a pentagon of cyclones surrounding one at the center to a hexagonal arrangement," said Alessandro Mura, a Juno co-investigator at the National Institute for Astrophysics in Rome. "This new addition is smaller in stature than its six more established cyclonic brothers: It's about the size of Texas. Maybe JIRAM data from future flybys will show the cyclone growing to the same size as its neighbors."

Probing the weather layer down to 30 to 45 miles (50 to 70 kilometers) below Jupiter's cloud tops, JIRAM captures infrared light emerging from deep inside Jupiter. Its data indicate wind speeds of the new cyclone average 225 mph (362 kph) - comparable to the velocity found in its six more established polar colleagues.

The spacecraft's JunoCam also obtained visible-light imagery of the new cyclone. The two datasets shed light on atmospheric processes of not just Jupiter but also fellow gas giants Saturn, Uranus and Neptune as well as those of giant exoplanets now being discovered; they even shed light on atmospheric processes of Earth's cyclones.

"These cyclones are new weather phenomena that have not been seen or predicted before," said Cheng Li, a Juno scientist from the University of California, Berkeley. "Nature is revealing new physics regarding fluid motions and how giant planet atmospheres work. We are beginning to grasp it through observations and computer simulations. Future Juno flybys will help us further refine our understanding by revealing how the cyclones evolve over time."

Shadow Jumping
Of course, the new cyclone would never have been discovered if Juno had frozen to death during the eclipse when Jupiter got between the spacecraft and the Sun's heat and light rays.

Juno has been navigating in deep space since 2011. It entered an initial 53-day orbit around Jupiter on July 4, 2016. Originally, the mission planned to reduce the size of its orbit a few months later to shorten the period between science flybys of the gas giant to every 14 days. But the project team recommended to NASA to forgo the main engine burn due to concerns about the spacecraft's fuel delivery system. Juno's 53-day orbit provides all the science as originally planned; it just takes longer to do so. Juno's longer life at Jupiter is what led to the need to avoid Jupiter's shadow.

"Ever since the day we entered orbit around Jupiter, we made sure it remained bathed in sunlight 24/7," said Steve Levin, Juno project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "Our navigators and engineers told us a day of reckoning was coming, when we would go into Jupiter's shadow for about 12 hours. We knew that for such an extended period without power, our spacecraft would suffer a similar fate as the Opportunity rover, when the skies of Mars filled with dust and blocked the Sun's rays from reaching its solar panels."

Without the Sun's rays providing power, Juno would be chilled below tested levels, eventually draining its battery cells beyond recovery. So the navigation team set devised a plan to "jump the shadow," maneuvering the spacecraft just enough so its trajectory would miss the eclipse.

"In deep space, you are either in sunlight or your out of sunlight; there really is no in-between," said Levin.

The navigators calculated that if Juno performed a rocket burn weeks in advance of Nov. 3, while the spacecraft was as far in its orbit from Jupiter as it gets, they could modify its trajectory enough to give the eclipse the slip. The maneuver would utilize the spacecraft's reaction control system, which wasn't initially intended to be used for a maneuver of this size and duration.

On Sept. 30, at 7:46 p.m. EDT (4:46 p.m. PDT), the reaction control system burn began. It ended 10 0.5 hours later. The propulsive maneuver - five times longer than any previous use of that system - changed Juno's orbital velocity by 126 mph (203 kph) and consumed about 160 pounds (73 kilograms) of fuel. Thirty-four days later, the spacecraft's solar arrays continued to convert sunlight into electrons unabated as Juno prepared to scream once again over Jupiter's cloud tops.

"Thanks to our navigators and engineers, we still have a mission," said Bolton. "What they did is more than just make our cyclone discovery possible; they made possible the new insights and revelations about Jupiter that lie ahead of us."

NASA's JPL manages the Juno mission for the principal
investigator, Scott Bolton, of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. Juno is part of NASA's New Frontiers Program, which is managed at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Italian Space Agency (ASI) contributed the Jovian Infrared Auroral Mapper. Lockheed Martin Space in Denver built and operates the spacecraft.

Monday, December 9, 2019

SpaceX Dragon docks with International Space Station

The SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft containing 5,700 pounds of cargo arrived at the International Space Station on Sunday morning. The spacecraft, which is SpaceX's 19th delivery to the ISS, was captured by the Canadarm2 robotic arm operated by astronauts Luca Parmitano and Andrew Morgan at 5:05 a.m. At 7:47 a.m., it was installed at the ISS, according to NASA. Aboard were genetically enhanced "mighty mice," 36,000 worms and a new version of the CIMON rocket to interact with astronauts. The worms will reproduce 3 million mice in an incubator and be brought back to Earth in a frozen state, reported. The mice will help scientists understand how to limit muscle and bone loss in humans in space, CNN reported. Experiments also will study malting barley in microgravity, the spread of fire. Also delivered were a high-tech toolbox to be mounted outside the station and a new hyperspectral Earth imaging system developed by the Japanese government for use in oil exploration among other things. The spacecraft was launched aboard the Falcon 9 rocket Thursday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The liftoff was delayed from Wednesday because of strong high-altitude winds. The capsule is scheduled to leave the space station and re-enter Earth's atmosphere in January, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California with 3,600 pounds of return cargo. Early Monday morning, a second resupply spacecraft is scheduled to arrive: the Russian Progress 74 that launched Friday morning. NASA TV will provide live coverage of Progress rendezvous and docking at 4:45 a.m.

earlier report
SpaceX launches 19th cargo mission to space station with robot aboard
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched into a bright Florida sky Thursday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on the company's 19th cargo mission to the International Space Station.

The rocket, lifting off at 12:29 p.m., carried 5,700 pounds of supplies, experiments and a new version of the CIMON robot designed to interact with astronauts. The onboard robot is designed to float in the space station's habitat.

SpaceX had postponed a launch attempt Wednesday because of strong high-altitude winds that could knock the Falcon 9 rocket off course, but company officials said the weather was ideal Thursday and the launch came on time.

The first-stage booster of the rocket, which had not been used previously, landed on a barge in the Atlantic Ocean about eight minutes after launch. A live feed showing the barge was interrupted as the booster descended, causing a gasp from the group watching at SpaceX headquarters. The feed was restored a few seconds later and showed the booster standing safely upright.

The Dragon capsule will travel through space for several days as it catches up to the station. On Dec. 8, the capsule will make a slow approach to space station, and astronauts on board will capture it using the station's Canadarm and attach it to an airlock.

After being unpacked and repacked, the capsule is scheduled to leave the space station from the station and re-enter Earth's atmosphere in January, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California with 3,600 pounds of return cargo.

The robot being sent to the space station, CIMON - an acronym for Crew Interactive Mobile Companion - is capable of conversing with astronauts, helping them remember procedures and eventually detecting their mood in case of problems on board. It was built by Airbus with help from IBM and the German Aerospace Center.

The first version of CIMON was tested on the station in November 2018 with mixed results. Video showed German astronaut Alexander Gerst switching on the robot and holding a five-minute conversation with it. CIMON appeared to malfunction, floating down toward the deck of the station despite Gerst's attempt to pull it back.

But the robot did answer questions and play a song that was billed as Gerst's favorite in the video, The Man Machine, by German band Kraftwerk. Finally CIMON told Gerst to "Be nice to me," prompting snickers from the crew.

At one point in the conversation, the robot responded with comments about dancing when Gerst told it to "cancel" the music it was playing.

"The first CIMON was sent back to Earth and will go to a museum," said Till Eisenberg, a project manager for Airbus. "The new version has better microphones and software life that can last up to three years in space."

The goal, Eisenberg said, is to have CIMON support the crew's mental health and mood with conversation. It also could be equipped with sensors, such as those that would detect carbon monoxide if astronauts appear groggy.

Other items on the rocket included a high-tech toolbox, designed to be mounted outside the station, and a new hyperspectral Earth imaging system that was developed by the Japanese government for use in oil exploration among other things.

The toolbox will hold two leak detectors, and help reduce preparation time in space because they no longer will be brought through airlocks. The leak detectors are equipped with mass spectrometers that can find small leaks from the space station, NASA said.

The tool stowage assembly was developed at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., in partnership with NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The Dragon capsule that carried the cargo previously flew on SpaceX's CRS-6 and CRS-11 missions.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

China's first electromagnetic satellite bears fruitful results

China's first seismo-electromagnetic satellite Zhangheng-1 has obtained fruitful electromagnetic data, according to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC). The satellite has enabled China to obtain a global geomagnetic map and an ionospheric map with its own intellectual property rights. It has obtained information about global ground artificial sources, magnetic storms and signals of earthquakes above 7 magnitude. It also helps with understanding the coupling mechanisms of the lithosphere, atmosphere and ionosphere. Shen Xuhui, the chief scientist of the satellite, said China is expected to have three electromagnetic satellites in orbit by 2022, offering support for earthquake forecasting as well as space weather monitoring and warning. Developed by DFH Satellite Co., Ltd. under the CASC, the satellite Zhangheng 1 was launched on Feb. 2, 2018. The satellite was named after Zhang Heng, a renowned scholar of the East Han Dynasty (25-220), who pioneered earthquake studies by inventing the first-ever seismoscope in the year 132.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Germany invests 3.3 billion euro in European space exploration and becomes ESA's largest contributor

The German delegation at the European Space Agency (ESA) Council Meeting at Ministerial Level, 'Space19+', was headed by the Federal Government Coordinator of German Aerospace Policy, Thomas Jarzombek, who is a member of the Federal Parliament. He was accompanied and supported by representatives from the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (Bundesministerium fur Wirtschaft und Energie; BMWi) and the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure (Bundesministerium fur Verkehr und digitale Infrastruktur; BMVI). Walther Pelzer, German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum fur Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) Executive Board member responsible for the Space Administration, also participated in the negotiations. Together with his team from the Space Administration in Bonn, Pelzer prepared working-level German position papers for the meeting in consultation with Federal Government officials. At the end of the conference, Thomas Jarzombek stated that: "After two days of intensive negotiations, Germany has committed a total of 3.3 billion euro for European space programmes over the next three to five years. In setting out our priorities, we have shown that we are a reliable partner for ESA. To achieve our goal of strengthening small and medium-sized German space companies, we have doubled our funding for the relevant programmes. To address the challenges of climate change, Germany has increased its investment in Earth observation to 720 million euro. We have also succeeded in enabling the European lunar mission with a high level of commitment - 55 million euro."

At 'Space 19+', a total of 14.4 billion euro were committed. At 22.9 percent, Germany is now ESA's largest contributor, ahead of France. Specifically, Germany has committed approximately one billion euro to the ESA mandatory programmes. In addition to the general budget, these include the science programme and the European Spaceport in French Guiana. Approximately 2.3 billion euro of the German contribution will go towards what are referred to as the optional programmes: ~720 million euro for Earth observation, ~330 million euro for telecommunications, ~160 million euro for technology programmes, 84 million euro for space situational awareness and security, ~490 million euro for space transport and operations, and ~550 million euro for human spaceflight, microgravity research and exploration.

The German financial commitments in detail

Launch systems
From the end of 2020, Ariane 6 will be the new European launcher for carrying payloads into space, and Germany will contribute ~23 percent of the total development costs. The industrial prime contractors are ArianeGroup, with sites in Germany at Bremen and Ottobrunn, and MT Aerospace in Augsburg and Bremen. Germany is contributing a total of ~90 million euro to the further development of Ariane 6, including the preparation of the future upper stage. Germany is investing ~230 million euro in the optional Launchers Exploitation and Accompaniment (LEAP) programme and will be investing ~95 million euro for the operation and modernisation of the European Spaceport in French Guiana up until the end of 2024.

Germany is participating in the Future Launchers Preparatory Programme (FLPP) with ~137 million euro. The focus will be on the development of a cost-effective lightweight upper stage (for example, constructed using carbon-fibre reinforced composite materials), improving the performance of existing and new engines (Vulcain NEO, Vinci Evolution) and the implementation of new processes and methods (for example, additive manufacturing). Under the name 'Commercial Space Transportation Services and Support' (CSTS), ESA is taking forward a new optional programme in the context of NewSpace. Germany is contributing ~28 million euro to the 'Commercial Space Transportation Services' element, which broadly supports industry in the development of new space transport services, particularly in the field of microlauncher technology.

The Science Programme makes a significant contribution to the development and maintenance of Europe's space infrastructure. It finances research satellites and their launch and operation. The scientific instruments are developed by the Member States themselves. By 2035, 11 new missions will have been launched to explore and analyse the Solar System and the Universe at large. With a budget contribution of 20.7 percent of the total, Germany is the largest contributor to this programme, committing ~578 million euro over five years. Large and medium-sized missions with significant German participation are: Solar Orbiter (solar research, scheduled launch: 5 February 2020), JUICE (Jupiter mission, scheduled launch: 2022), EUCLID (dark energy/dark matter, planned launch: 2022), PLATO (exoplanet mission: 2026), ATHENA (X-ray telescope mission: 2031) and LISA (gravitational wave observatory: 2034).

Earth observation for climate protection and collaborative development
Germany is a world leader in Earth observation - both in scientific and technological terms, and in the use and processing of data for the analysis of the Earth system. With ~520 million euro (30 percent of the budget), Germany will retain its leading role in the currently operational Copernicus European Earth observation programme. This will involve the further development and expansion of the system to include new satellites (Sentinels 7-12) and services for climate monitoring and climate protection, agriculture, mobility, security and disaster prevention. German expertise could also be incorporated into the planned Copernicus hyperspectral mission.

In addition, Germany is contributing ~170 million euro (~26 percent) to the 'FutureEO' scientific programme. Ten million (out of 50 million euro) has been allocated to the new 'Global Development Assistance' (GDA) programme. 'InCubed+' is aimed at short-duration commercial Earth observation activities with private sector backing -Germany is contributing 15 million euro. In addition, Germany is supporting a small Arctic satellite mission (Demonstrator, NewSpace approach) to improve short- and medium-term weather forecasts in the Arctic region with 7.5 million euro.

In telecommunications (ARTES programmes), the aim is to support innovative technologies and products for the global commercial market. The main focus is on the Core Competitiveness (CC) programme, optical communications (ScyLight), commercial applications (Business Applications and Space Solutions; BASS), Secure Satcom for Safety and Security (4S) and the Partnership Programme. With a financial contribution of 80 million euro for ScyLight and 60 million euro for 4S, Germany has secured a leading role. In the CC Programme, Germany increased its contribution to 67 million euro and doubled its BASS contribution to 37 million euro. Germany contributed 65 million euro to the Partnership Programme, including Electra with an in-orbit demonstration, and 13 million euro to the framework programme for the support of satellites needed for the 5G mobile communications networks.

"Germany is very well positioned in the satellite telecommunications sector. Our aim is to increase the competitiveness of components and support system capabilities with a focus on secure communications - the keyword here is quantum encryption - to integrate satellite technology and applications into the new 5G mobile networks and above all to continue technological and political leadership in optical laser communication," says Walther Pelzer. One example is the planned optical communication network Hydron, which is designed to provide fast connections for users with high data transfer requirements, supplementing and complementing the terrestrial fibre optic network.

Space security

Space weather, observations of near-Earth objects and space debris are as relevant to science as they are to society. Germany is therefore contributing some 12 million euro to the core element of this programme. In addition, Germany will provide 60 million euro for the Hera mission and assume responsibility for system management. Together with NASA's Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission, Hera will investigate how asteroids can be diverted from their trajectory where there is a risk of collision with Earth. HERA's target is the double asteroid Didymos / Didymoon. The craft will perform observations and analyses in connection with the impact of the NASA DART spacecraft on the smaller asteroid, Didymoon, planned for September 2022. The findings will be used for fundamental research as well as for the preparation of possible defence missions against asteroids. Germany is also contributing ~12 million euro to a mission for the active removal of space debris (ADRIOS).

Technology development
German participation in the General Support Technology Programme (GSTP) aims to maintain, expand and strengthen the industrial competitiveness of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), particularly start-ups. New priorities include the digitalisation of production cycles, technologies for the sustainable use of space, Industry 4.0 compatible production methods, robotics and modern sensor technologies, AI-supported applications on satellites, and the development and use of quantum technologies. Germany has increased its contribution by a factor of 2.5 to 160 million euro. The programme aims to close existing gaps in technological development and focuses on the maturation of core technologies and components for future missions.

E3P - the European Exploration Envelope Programme
All robotic and astronautic exploration activities will be brought together under the 'European Exploration Envelope Programme' (E3P). This combines the European science and technology programme for the use of near-Earth orbits for space research with the exploration of the Moon and Mars. Sub-programmes will be the operation of the ISS and its utilisation (German share: 416 million euro). As the principal constructor and funder of the European Service Modules (ESM 1-4), the supply component of the US Orion spacecraft, Germany is an indispensable part of NASA's Artemis lunar programme.

This is supported by a strong role for SMEs, which Germany is aiming for through its subscription of 25 million euro for European gateway activities. In addition, Germany will play a leading role in the sustainable robotic exploration of the Moon with a contribution of 55 million euro. Germany is also contributing 20 million euro to the Exploration Preparation, Research and Technology (ExPeRT) programme, which will conduct mission studies and technology development for other exploration topics, including a commercial approach. For the consolidation of ExoMars (launch: July 2020) and selected technology elements of the 'Mars Sample Return' mission being planned in cooperation with NASA, Germany is providing ~37 million euro.

European Space Agency agrees record budget to meet new challenges

European Space Agency (ESA) members agreed Thursday a record 14.4 billion euros budget, promising to maintain Europe's place at the top table as the United States and China press ahead and industry disruptors such as Elon Musk's Space X present new challenges. The budget is split, with 12.5 billion euros ($14.1 billion) committed for three years and the full 14.4 billion euros over five, representing an increase of some four billion euros on the previous spending plan. "Its a surprise, even more than I proposed... this is good," ESA head Jan Woerner told a nwes conference after ministers from the 22 member states met in Seville for two days. Woerner said the funding pledges meant that ESA could run a full series of programmes plus additional scientific work, citing moves to increase earth observation as part of efforts, among other things, to monitor climate change. "It is a giant step forward for Europe, fifty years after the moon landing," said Jean-Yves Le Gall, head of the French space agency. "We have beaten all records in terms of financial contributions," Le Gall added. Germany made the largest contribution to the budget, at some 3.3 billion euros, followed by France on 2.7 billion euros, Italy 2.3 billion euros and Britain with 1.7 billion euros.The ESA is not a European Union body and so Britain's position as a member remains unchanged despite Brexit.

To reinforce that message, the UK Space Agency issued a statement recalling that Britain was one of ESA's founding members, and detailing its commitments to a series of programmes including earth observation, 5G telecoms and monitoring space debris.

- Moon, Mars, science -

Among the projects ESA highlighted were the first gravitational wave detector in space, LISA, and the black hole mission Athena, designed to "enable fundamental advances in our understanding of the basic physics of the Universe."

ESA reiterated its commitment to the International Space Station until 2030 and its participation in the Gateway project, the first space station planned to orbit the Moon.

"European astronauts will fly to the Moon for the first time," it said in a closing statement, and ESA will support a "ground-breaking Mars Sample Return mission in cooperation with NASA."

In telecommunications, ESA aims to help develop flexible satellite systems integrated with 5G networks, "as well as next-generation optical technology for a fibre-like 'network in the sky,', marking a transformation in the satellite communication industry."

Ministers also endorsed the transition to the next generation of launchers, the massive Ariane 6 and the smaller Vega-C, "and have given the green light to Space Rider, ESA's new reusable spaceship."

Going into the meeting, ESA officials had said the agency was hoping to get increased funding to ensure Europe does not lag behind.

Europe has established itself as a major space player, with the Ariane 6 launcher the latest off the production line and the Galileo GPS system operational.

Critics say however that it has been slow to develop some key innovations -- notably reusable rockets pioneered by the likes of Musk.

This "New Space" evolution has seen Musk develop reusable launchers for dramatically smaller yet more powerful satellites, many designed to create and run the "connected world" of driverless cars and countless other aspects of everyday life on earth.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Europe faces up to new space challenges

European ministers met Wednesday in Spain aiming to defend its top space ranking against challenges from the United States and China, and increasingly from industry disruptors such as Elon Musk's Space X. Ministers of the 22 European Space Agency (ESA) member states gathered in Seville to discuss a request for 14.3 billion euros in funding, some four billion euros more than in the previous 3-year budget. The European Union has already agreed to provide 16 billion euros and now the crucial question is what to spend it on. "There is a desire to do more, to have a more ambitious scientific programme and to develop our infrastructure to match our ambitions," ESA spokesman Philippe Willekens told AFP last week. In a fast changing environment, "Europe must pay attention to remain the leader in those sectors it already is and to continue to conquer new markets," Willekens added. In recent years, Europe has established itself as a major space player, with its very heavy Ariane 6 rocket launcher the latest off the production line and the Galileo GPS system operational. But this position is now "threatened," the Institut Montaigne think-tank in Paris says, as global competition increases, led by the United States and China who have poured massive amounts of money into the industry, both civilian and military. "Europe does not have the structural advantages of the Americans and Chinese because it does not have a single, shared objective," said Isabelle Sourbes-Verger of France's National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS).

"Europe has the same problem it has always had -- what justifies spending more on space?"

- 'New Space' challenge -

Europe must answer these questions just as new players such as Space X and a host of others, mostly American, have begun to emerge, shaking up the industry.

This "New Space" evolution has seen Musk for example develop reusable launchers for dramatically smaller yet more powerful satellites, many designed for the "connected world" of driverless cars and countless other aspects of everyday life on earth.

Some experts fear that Europe is simply not competitive enough to get into these new markets, never mind holding on to what it already has.

Ariane 6 is a particular cause for concern, with French state audit officials recently describing its economic model as "presenting some risks" given ferocious competition from Space X which in 2017 took Arianespace's global satellite launch crown.

Space X has forced down costs sharply, developing a reusable rocket which the Europeans thought initially to be impossible, the officials said.

Worse still, Europe "at this stage has only developed the building blocks which will allow, in due time, to acquire" this re-usable technology, the auditors said in a report.

Arianespace head Stephane Israel insists that Ariane 6 is "just the beginning" and the rocket programme "opens a cycle of innovations which will have to be accelerated."

At the same time, Ariane 6, whose first flight is scheduled for next year, will not be competitive in the long-run unless there is a high rate of launches, which will depend in turn on "numerous institutional orders," he said.

US government orders account for some 80 percent of Space X's scheduled work, he recalled.

Israel noted in this context recent supportive comments by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel that Europe should favour European launch options.

Sourbes-Verger at CNRS cautioned that "space is not a commercial industry like any other -- making money with a launcher is ambitious."

Europe should therefore continue to focus on "original projects and on developing its strong points," such as in scientific space efforts, she added.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Boeing CST-100 Starliner takes next step for orbital flight test

The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft that will launch to the International Space Station on the company's uncrewed Orbital Flight Test for NASA's Commercial Crew Program (CCP) has taken a significant step toward launch. Starliner rolled out of Boeing's Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Nov. 21, making the trek on a transport vehicle to Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. "This is critical to our future as a nation," said Kennedy's center director Bob Cabana. "We've got to get astronauts flying on U.S rockets from U.S. soil, and this is just a huge step forward." Cabana was joined by CCP and Boeing leaders in a gathering of employees and families to watch Starliner roll out of the factory. "For the team that has built the first American spacecraft designed to land on land, and to get it rolling out, is absolutely incredible," said John Mulholland, Vice President and Program Manager of Boeing Commercial Crew Programs. "Something this complex takes a huge team." "Look at that amazing sight and what your success looks like," said Kathy Lueders, NASA's Commercial Crew Program Manager. "We're not done yet. We've got to step into the mission carefully, fly this vehicle up to the space station, and bring it home safely." At the pad, Starliner was hoisted up at the Vertical Integration Facility and secured atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket for the flight test to the space station. The Atlas V rocket that will carry Starliner comprises a booster stage and dual-engine Centaur upper stage, as well as a pair of solid rocket boosters.

NASA astronauts Mike Fincke and Nicole Mann and Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson were on hand to witness the rollout milestone ahead of the uncrewed flight test.

"This is the dawn of a new era," said Ferguson. "For all of you youngsters out there who came out here early to watch, I'm glad you were a part of this. This is really important because this is your future, too."

"We're looking forward to the day when we're launching people on a regular basis," said Fincke. "As graduates of military test pilot schools, we are really excited to see how Starliner's going to behave; we know it's going to be awesome, and we're going to get all kinds of really great test data from it."

The uncrewed flight test, targeted to launch Dec. 17, will provide valuable data on the end-to-end performance of the Atlas V rocket, Starliner spacecraft and ground systems, as well as in-orbit, docking and landing operations. The data will be used as part of NASA's process of certifying Boeing's crew transportation system for carrying astronauts to and from the space station.

"It comes down to trust," said Mann. "I'm talking about trust in the individuals-our fellow Americans-who are building this spacecraft and making this possible. You walk around the factory and there is this amazing attention to detail, and it gives you this great level of confidence," said Mann.

NASA is working in partnership with Boeing and SpaceX to launch astronauts on American rockets and spacecraft from American soil for the first time since 2011. Safe, reliable and cost-effective human transportation to and from the space station will allow for additional research time and increase the opportunity for discovery aboard humanity's testbed for exploration.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Boeing Starliner Crew spacecraft heads to pre-launch processing

Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft is transported from NASA's Kennedy Space Center to a facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019. Later in the day it was placed atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket ahead of Boeing's uncrewed Orbital Flight Test to the International Space Station. Boeing's uncrewed flight test, which is targeted for Dec. 17, will provide valuable data on the end-to-end performance of the rocket, spacecraft and ground systems, as well as, in-orbit and landing operations. The data will be used toward certification of Boeing's crew transportation system for carrying astronauts to and from the space station. NASA's Commercial Crew Program is working with the American aerospace industry through public-private partnerships to launch astronauts on American rockets and spacecraft from American soil for the first time since 2011. The goal of the program is safe, reliable and cost-effective human space transportation to and from the International Space Station. This could allow for additional research time aboard the station and increase the opportunity for discovery aboard humanity's testbed for exploration, which includes sending astronauts to the Moon and Mars.

Friday, November 22, 2019

MEASAT selects Arianespace for launch of MEASAT-3d

Arianespace and MEASAT Global Berhad (MEASAT), the leading Malaysian satellite operator, has announced the signature of a launch services contract for MEASAT-3d. MEASAT-3d, a new multi-mission telecommunications satellite, will be launched into geostationary transfer orbit by an Ariane 5 heavy-lift launch vehicle from the Guiana Space Center, Europe's Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana (South America) in 2021. MEASAT, the leading Malaysian satellite operator, operates five satellites, providing coverage over Asia, Middle East, Africa, Europe and Australia. MEASAT-3d will serve the growth requirements of 4G and 5G mobile networks in Malaysia while continuing to provide redundancy and additional distribution capacity for video in HD, 4K, and ultimately 8K in the Asia-Pacific region. The satellite will weigh approximately 5,734 kg. at launch, and offers an operational life of 19 years. When positioned at 91.5 degrees East, MEASAT-3d will be co-located with MEASAT-3a and MEASAT-3b satellites to replace and enhance capacity in Malaysia, Asia, Middle East and Africa. The new MEASAT-3d satellite will carry multiple payload types: C- and Ku-band payloads for direct-to-home television broadcasting and other telecom services, as well as a high-throughput Ka-band payload for internet connectivity. MEASAT-3d also will carry an L-band navigation payload for Korean satellite operator Kt sat as part of the Korea Augmentation Satellite System.

Airbus Defence and Space built MEASAT-3d using the Eurostar E3000 satellite platform.

Commenting on this latest contract, Arianespace Chief Executive Officer Stephane Israel said: "We are honoured that MEASAT entrusted the launch of MEASAT-3d to Arianespace, renewing a long standing partnership with this Malaysian operator that dates back to 1996.

With one new commercial success for Ariane 5, the Ariane family reasserts itself as the best-suited solution to reach the geostationary orbit, just a few weeks before the 40 years of Ariane and before the advent of Ariane 6 in 2020!"

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Exoplanet axis study boosts hopes of complex life, just not next door

"They're out there," goes a saying about extraterrestrials. It would seem more likely to be true in light of a new study on planetary axis tilts. Astrophysicists at the Georgia Institute of Technology modeled a theoretical twin of Earth into other star systems called binary systems because they have two stars. They concluded that 87% of exo-Earths one might find in binary systems should have axis tilts similarly steady to Earth's, an important ingredient for climate stability that favors the evolution of complex life. "Multiple-star systems are common, and about 50% of stars have binary companion stars. So, this study can be applied to a large number of solar systems," said Gongjie Li, the study's co-investigator an assistant professor at Georgia Tech's School of Physics. Single-star solar systems like our own with multiple planets appear to be rarer. The researchers started out contrasting how the Earth's axis tilt, also called obliquity, varies over time with the variation of Mars' axis tilt. Whereas our planet's mild obliquity variations have been great for a livable climate and for evolution, the wild variations of Mars' axis tilt may have helped wreck its atmosphere, as explained in the section below. Then the researchers modeled Earth into habitable, or Goldilocks, zones in Alpha Centauri AB - our solar system's nearest neighbor, a binary system with one star called "A" and the other "B." After that, they expanded the model to a more universal scope.

"We simulated what it would be like around other binaries with multiple variations of the stars' masses, orbital qualities, and so on," said Billy Quarles, the study's principal investigator and a research scientist in Li's lab. "The overall message was positive but not for our nearest neighbor."

Alpha Centauri A actually didn't look bad, but the outlook for mild axis dynamics on an exo-Earth modeled around star B was wretched. This may douse some hopes because Alpha Centauri AB is four lightyears away, and a mission named Starshot with big-name backers plans to launch a space probe to look for signs of advanced life there.

The researchers are publishing their study, which was co-led by Jack Lissauer from NASA Ames Research Center, in Astrophysical Journal on November 19, 2019, under the title: "Obliquity Evolution of Circumstellar Planets in Sun-like Stellar Binaries." The research was funded by the NASA Exobiology Program.

No exoplanets have been confirmed around A or B; an exoplanet has been confirmed around the nearby red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, but it is very likely to be uninhabitable.

Earth? Just right
Even with its ice ages and hot phases, Earth's climatological framework has been calm for hundreds of millions of years - in part because of its mild orbital and axis-tilt dynamics - allowing evolution to take big strides. Wildly varying dynamics, and thus climate, like on Mars would stand to regularly kill off advanced life, stunting evolution.

Earth's orbit around the sun is on a slight incline that seesaws gently and very slowly through a slight precession, a kind of oscillation. As Earth revolves, it shifts position relative to the sun, circling it a little like a spirograph drawing. The orbit also precesses in shape between slightly more and slightly less oblong over 100,000-year periods.

Earth's axis tilt precesses between 22.1 and 24.5 degrees over the course of 41,000 years. Our large moon stabilizes our tilt through its gravitational relationship with Earth, otherwise, bouncy gravitational interconnections with Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter would jolt our tilt with resonances.

"If we didn't have the moon, Earth's tilt could vary by about 60 degrees," Quarles said. "We'd look maybe like Mars, and the precession of its axis appears to have helped deplete its atmosphere."

Mars' axis precesses between 10 degrees and 60 degrees every 2 million years. At the 10-degree tilt, the atmosphere condenses at the poles, creating caps that lock up a lot of the atmosphere in ice. At 60 degrees, Mars could grow an ice belt around its equator.

Universe? Hopeful
In Alpha Centauri AB, star B, about the size of our sun, and the larger star, A, orbit one another at about the distance between Uranus and our sun, which is a very close for two stars in a binary system. The study modeled variations of an exo-Earth orbiting either star but concentrated on a modeled Earth orbit in the habitable zone centered around B, with A being the orbiting star.

A's orbit is very elliptical, passing close by and then moving very far away from B and slinging powerful gravity, which, in the model, overpowered exo-Earth's own dynamics. Its tilt and orbit varied widely; adding our moon to the model didn't help.

"Around Alpha Centauri B, if you don't have a moon, you have a more stable axis than if you do have a moon. If you have a moon, it's pretty much bad news," Quarles said.

Even without a moon and with mild axis variability, complex, Earthlike evolution would seem to have a hard time on the modeled exo-Earth around B.

"The biggest effect you would see is differences in the climate cycles related to how elongated the orbit is. Instead of having ice ages every 100,000 years like on Earth, they may come every 1 million years, be worse, and last much longer," Quarles said.

But a sliver of hope for Earthlike conditions turned up in the model: "Planetary orbit and spin need to precess just right relative to the binary orbit. There is this tiny sweet spot," Quarles said.

When the researchers expanded the model to binary systems in the universe, the probability of gentle obliquity variations ballooned.

"In general, the separation between the stars is larger in binary systems, and then the second star has less of an effect on the model of Earth. The planet's own motion dynamics dominate other influences, and obliquity usually has a smaller variation," Li said. "So, this is quite optimistic."

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Arianespace will orbit TIBA-1 and Inmarsat GX5 with Ariane 5

On its fourth flight with Ariane 5 in 2019, Arianespace will orbit two telecommunications satellites at the service of long-term customers: TIBA-1 for Thales Alenia Space and Airbus Defence and Space, on behalf of the Government of Egypt; and the GX5 satellite for the operator Inmarsat. Through this mission, Arianespace highlights its ability to be at the service of innovative satellite solutions for commercial and institutional needs. VA250 will be the 250th launch of an Ariane rocket, which lifted off for the first time on December 24, 1979. Flight VA250 will be performed from Ariane Launch Complex No. 3 (ELA 3) in Kourou, French Guiana. The Launch Readiness Review (LRR) will take place on Wednesday, November 20, 2019 in Kourou to authorize the start of operations for the final countdown. TIBA-1 is a civil and government telecommunication satellite for Egypt. It was developed by Thales Alenia Space and Airbus Defence and Space as co-prime contractors, with Thales Alenia Space acting as the consortium's lead partner. TIBA-1 will be owned and operated by the government of Egypt. TIBA-1 will be the fourth satellite launched by Arianespace for Egypt. It will be deployed by Arianespace into geostationary transfer orbit (GTO), subsequently transitioning to its operational orbital slot position at 35.5 East. Airbus Defence and Space is Arianespace's direct customer for this mission, continuing a fruitful cooperation between the two companies that extends back to Arianespace's creation in 1980.

GX5 is a mobile communications satellite built by Thales Alenia Space for Inmarsat. Inmarsat's fifth Ka-band Global Xpress (GX) satellite, GX5 will be the most advanced in the GX fleet, which in less than four years has become the gold standard for seamless, globally available, mobile broadband services.

Located in a geostationary orbit at 11 East, GX5 will deliver greater capacity than the entire existing GX fleet (GX1-GX4) combined and will support the rapid growth in customer demand for GX services in Europe and the Middle East, particularly for aviation passenger Wi-Fi and commercial maritime services.

This is the 10th time that Inmarsat has chosen Arianespace's launch services, demonstrating a well-established trust - with the two companies' relationship dating back to 1981.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

NASA sending solar power generator developed at Ben-Gurion to ISS

A new solar power generator prototype developed by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) and research teams in the United States, will be deployed on the first 2020 NASA flight launch to the International Space Station. According to research published in Optics Express, the compact, microconcentrator photovoltaic system could provide unprecedented watt per kilogram of power critical to lowering costs for private space flight. As the total costs of a launch are decreasing, solar power systems now represent a larger fraction than ever of total system cost. Optical concentration can improve the efficiency and reduce photovoltaic power costs, but has traditionally been too bulky, massive and unreliable for space use. Together with U.S. colleagues, Prof. (Emer.) Jeffrey Gordon of the BGU Alexandre Yersin Department of Solar Energy and Environmental Physics, Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research, developed this first-generation prototype (1.7 mm wide) that is slightly thicker than a sheet of paper (.10 mm) and slightly larger than a U.S. quarter. "These results lay the groundwork for future space microconcentrator photovoltaic systems and establish a realistic path to exceed 350 w/kg specific power at more than 33% power conversion efficiency by scaling down to even smaller microcells," the researchers say. "These could serve as a drop-in replacement for existing space solar cells at a substantially lower cost."

A second generation of more efficient solar cells now being fabricated at the U.S. Naval Research Labs is only 0.17 mm per side, 1.0 mm thick and will increase specific power even further. If successful, future arrays will be planned for private space initiatives, as well as space agencies pursuing new missions that require high power for electric propulsion and deep space missions, including to Jupiter and Saturn.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

With Mars methane mystery unsolved, Curiosity serves scientists a new one: oxygen

For the first time in the history of space exploration, scientists have measured the seasonal changes in the gases that fill the air directly above the surface of Gale Crater on Mars. As a result, they noticed something baffling: oxygen, the gas many Earth creatures use to breathe, behaves in a way that so far scientists cannot explain through any known chemical processes. Over the course of three Mars years (or nearly six Earth years) an instrument in the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) portable chemistry lab inside the belly of NASA's Curiosity rover inhaled the air of Gale Crater and analyzed its composition. The results SAM spit out confirmed the makeup of the Martian atmosphere at the surface: 95% by volume of carbon dioxide (CO2), 2.6% molecular nitrogen (N2), 1.9% argon (Ar), 0.16% molecular oxygen (O2), and 0.06% carbon monoxide (CO). They also revealed how the molecules in the Martian air mix and circulate with the changes in air pressure throughout the year. These changes are caused when CO2 gas freezes over the poles in the winter, thereby lowering the air pressure across the planet following redistribution of air to maintain pressure equilibrium. When CO2 evaporates in the spring and summer and mixes across Mars, it raises the air pressure. Within this environment, scientists found that nitrogen and argon follow a predictable seasonal pattern, waxing and waning in concentration in Gale Crater throughout the year relative to how much CO2 is in the air. They expected oxygen to do the same. But it didn't. Instead, the amount of the gas in the air rose throughout spring and summer by as much as 30%, and then dropped back to levels predicted by known chemistry in fall. This pattern repeated each spring, though the amount of oxygen added to the atmosphere varied, implying that something was producing it and then taking it away.

"The first time we saw that, it was just mind boggling," said Sushil Atreya, professor of climate and space sciences at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Atreya is a co-author of a paper on this topic published on November 12 in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets.

As soon as scientists discovered the oxygen enigma, Mars experts set to work trying to explain it. They first double- and triple-checked the accuracy of the SAM instrument they used to measure the gases: the Quadrupole Mass Spectrometer. The instrument was fine. They considered the possibility that CO2 or water (H2O) molecules could have released oxygen when they broke apart in the atmosphere, leading to the short-lived rise.

But it would take five times more water above Mars to produce the extra oxygen, and CO2 breaks up too slowly to generate it over such a short time. What about the oxygen decrease? Could solar radiation have broken up oxygen molecules into two atoms that blew away into space? No, scientists concluded, since it would take at least 10 years for the oxygen to disappear through this process.

"We're struggling to explain this," said Melissa Trainer, a planetary scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland who led this research. "The fact that the oxygen behavior isn't perfectly repeatable every season makes us think that it's not an issue that has to do with atmospheric dynamics. It has to be some chemical source and sink that we can't yet account for."

To scientists who study Mars, the oxygen story is curiously similar to that of methane. Methane is constantly in the air inside Gale Crater in such small quantities (0.00000004% on average) that it's barely discernable even by the most sensitive instruments on Mars. Still, it's been measured by SAM's Tunable Laser Spectrometer. The instrument revealed that while methane rises and falls seasonally, it increases in abundance by about 60% in summer months for inexplicable reasons. (In fact, methane also spikes randomly and dramatically. Scientists are trying to figure out why.)

With the new oxygen findings in hand, Trainer's team is wondering if chemistry similar to what's driving methane's natural seasonal variations may also drive oxygen's. At least occasionally, the two gases appear to fluctuate in tandem.

"We're beginning to see this tantalizing correlation between methane and oxygen for a good part of the Mars year," Atreya said. "I think there's something to it. I just don't have the answers yet. Nobody does."

Oxygen and methane can be produced both biologically (from microbes, for instance) and abiotically (from chemistry related to water and rocks). Scientists are considering all options, although they don't have any convincing evidence of biological activity on Mars.

Curiosity doesn't have instruments that can definitively say whether the source of the methane or oxygen on Mars is biological or geological. Scientists expect that non-biological explanations are more likely and are working diligently to fully understand them.

Trainer's team considered Martian soil as a source of the extra springtime oxygen. After all, it's known to be rich in the element, in the form of compounds such as hydrogen peroxide and perchlorates. One experiment on the Viking landers showed decades ago that heat and humidity could release oxygen from Martian soil.

But that experiment took place in conditions quite different from the Martian spring environment, and it doesn't explain the oxygen drop, among other problems.

Other possible explanations also don't quite add up for now. For example, high-energy radiation of the soil could produce extra O2 in the air, but it would take a million years to accumulate enough oxygen in the soil to account for the boost measured in only one spring, the researchers report in their paper.

"We have not been able to come up with one process yet that produces the amount of oxygen we need, but we think it has to be something in the surface soil that changes seasonally because there aren't enough available oxygen atoms in the atmosphere to create the behavior we see," said Timothy McConnochie, assistant research scientist at the University of Maryland in College Park and another co-author of the paper.

The only previous spacecraft with instruments capable of measuring the composition of the Martian air near the ground were NASA's twin Viking landers, which arrived on the planet in 1976. The Viking experiments covered only a few Martian days, though, so they couldn't reveal seasonal patterns of the different gases.

The new SAM measurements are the first to do so. The SAM team will continue to measure atmospheric gases so scientists can gather more detailed data throughout each season. In the meantime, Trainer and her team hope that other Mars experts will work to solve the oxygen mystery.

"This is the first time where we're seeing this interesting behavior over multiple years. We don't totally understand it," Trainer said. "For me, this is an open call to all the smart people out there who are interested in this: See what you can come up with."

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

AFRL tests in-house, rapidly developed small engine

The Air Force Research Laboratory demonstrated a new and ultra-responsive approach to turbine engine development with the initial testing of the Responsive Open Source Engine (ROSE) on Nov. 6, 2019, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. The Aerospace Systems Directorate's ROSE is the first turbine engine designed, assembled, and tested exclusively in-house. The entire effort, from concept initiation to testing, was executed within 13 months. This program responds to Air Force's desire for rapid demonstration of new technologies and faster, less expensive prototypes. "We decided the best way to make a low-cost, expendable engine was to separate the development costs from procurement costs," said Frank Lieghley, Aerospace Systems Directorate Turbine Engine Division senior aerospace engineer and project manager. He explained that because the design and development were conducted in-house, the Air Force owns the intellectual property behind it. Therefore, once the engine is tested and qualified, the Air Force can forego the typical and often slow development process, instead opening the production opportunity to lower-cost manufacturers better able to economically produce the smaller production runs needed for new Air Force platforms.The applications for this class of engine are many and varied, but the development and advancement of platforms that could make use of it has typically been stymied because the engines have been too expensive. Through this effort, AFRL hopes to lower the engine cost to roughly one fourth of the cheapest current alternative, an almost unheard-of price for such technology, thus enabling a new class of air vehicles that can capitalize on the less expensive engine.

"There's no end to what might be done, but it's all enabled by inexpensive production," said Dr. Greg Bloch, Aerospace Systems Directorate Turbine Engine Division chief engineer. "It's the ability to turn the economics of warfare around."

Bloch added that the design and development of this engine was a unique learning opportunity for younger engineers within the directorate. By participating in the entire process, from cradle to grave, junior workforce engineers gained first-hand experience with every aspect of engine development.

"We have a lengthy history of providing technical oversight at a high level to various engine companies as they develop these engines for the U.S. Air Force," said Bloch. "By teaching our people to do this themselves, we're instilling in them a level of gravitas that will serve the Air Force well when we then apply that oversight to the traditional engine manufacturers."

The team says ROSE is more than just a first-of-its-kind engine development project. It represents a shift in thinking about how to do business.

"We're not trying to compete with our commercial partners, we are leveraging an underutilized sector to meet Air Force needs," said Lt. Col. Ionio Andrus, Aerospace Systems Directorate Turbine Engine Division deputy division chief.

Andrus added that by working closely with other AFRL organizations, including the Materials and Manufacturing Directorate and the Air Force Institute of Technology, the team leveraged internal expertise that helped advance the project. Additionally, by starting from scratch and performing all the work themselves, the AFRL team developed new tools and models that will be available for use in future iterations and new engine design projects.

"This is the right project for the issues that AFRL, the Turbine Engine Division, and the Air Force are facing," said Andrus. "There's a lot of goodness here."

Following this test event, the team will use the measured data to validate their newly-developed design tools and will work toward developing a second iteration of the engine that will be smaller and lighter. With the tools and know-how already in place, Lieghley expects the second design to be completed even more quickly than the first.

Bloch calls ROSE another milestone in the Turbine Engine Division's rich legacy in equipping Air Force platforms. However, this one holds a special place in the hearts and minds of the engineers behind it.

"There's not an Air Force engine fielded today whose technology can't be traced back to Turbine Engine Division in-house work," he said. "We'll eventually hand this off to a manufacturer, but this one is all AFRL on the inside."

Saturday, November 9, 2019

First launch of UK OneWeb communications satellites from Baikonur postponed

The first launch of UK communications satellites OneWeb from Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome was initially supposed to take place on 19 December. The launch of UK OneWeb space internet system satellites from the Baikonur space centre was postponed from December this year to January 2020, three sources in Russia's rocket and space industry revealed. "The launch is being postponed due to the fact that the spacecraft are not ready. Their delivery to Baikonur is delayed from November to December 2019. The planned launch is postponed from 19 December to 23 January," one of the sources said, with two other sources confirming this information. OneWeb plans to create a constellation of satellites that will provide broadband Internet access to users around the world fully covering the Earth's surface. In cooperation with Roscosmos, the UK communications company sent up its first satellites in February and has planned its next two launches for the end of this year and the first half of 2020.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

New payload fairing from RUAG Space enables quieter journey to space

RUAG Space, a leading supplier to the space industry, has successfully developed and tested a new low shock jettison system for payload fairings. This enables a quieter and smoother journey to space for satellites or other payload. The required payload fairings for the European launchers Ariane and VEGA have been produced by RUAG Space in Emmen, Switzerland, since the 1970s. As part of the Future Launchers Preparatory Programme (FLPP) of the European Space Agency (ESA), RUAG Space has developed this new separation and jettison system for payload fairings. "This new solution enables a quieter journey to space", says Peter Guggenbach, CEO RUAG Space. The payload fairing protects the satellite from aerodynamic and thermal loads during flight. After passing through dense atmospheric layers and as soon as the satellite is no longer at risk, the payload fairing is separated from the launch vehicle. As a rule, two pyrotechnic mechanisms are fired to open hinges, allowing the half-shells to separate safely from the payload. "Pyrotechnics is a proven technology, which may generate significant shock during activation and may result in excitation that needs to be considered in the design of the launcher and payload hardware", says Alberto Sanchez Cebrian, Project Manager at RUAG.

Lower development costs and simpler test conditions
The separation and jettison system has a modular design and reduces development costs, as parts can be improved or replaced without affecting the entire system. Testing is easier and the mechanism does not require synchronization.

The tests were carried out at the RUAG Spaces site in Emmen on a 2.6 m long Vega payload fairing. The new system is scalable and could also be used for, for instance, in the European launch vehicle Ariane.

In addition to the successful separation test, a significant noise reduction was achieved. An integrated sound-reducing perforated insulation layer within the sandwich panels of the payload fairing enables noise reduction without increasing mass and volume.

In certain frequency bands this system could replace acoustic absorber mats currently used in payload fairings. Testing and evaluation of this new system will continue in the next phase of the project.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Numerous polar storms on Saturn analyzed by the UPV/EHU's Planetary Sciences Group

Sanchez-Lavega's work appears under the title 'A complex storm system in Saturn's north polar atmosphere in 2018', and was produced in collaboration with Teresa del Rio-Gaztelurrutia, Jon Legarreta and Ricardo Hueso, lecturers at the Faculty of Engineering in Bilbao, and a large group of scientists of other nationalities. It was an amateur Brazilian astronomer who on 29 March, 2018, captured on telescope a brilliant white spot on the disc of the planet Saturn close to its north pole. A few days later the spot increased in size reaching a length of approximately 4,000 km and became the most noteworthy detail on the disc of the ringed planet. A second spot appeared further north on the planet a few months later, and sequentially over subsequent months, a third and fourth spot; the latter spots were much closer to the polar region on the edge of the famous Saturn hexagon that had never been previously observed. The spots drifted throughout all these months at varying speeds dragged along by the atmospheric winds that blow on Saturn like jet streams Eastwards and Westwards and whose intensity depends on the latitude. While the first spot, located further south at a speed of about 220 km/hour drifted Eastwards, the one located further north drifted at about 20 km/hour Westwards. This led to encounters between them; some passed close to others and in the course of their mutual interaction they generated atmospheric disturbances that spread throughout Saturn's polar region.

The features of the spots suggest that they are storms that burst as a result of convection in the deep water clouds about 200 km below the visible clouds. The hot, humid gas rises forcefully in Saturn's thin, hydrogen atmosphere and forms thick clouds of ammonia, which are the ones seen through the telescope.

"It is the first time that we have seen such a phenomenon of numerous storms at different latitudes. To date, we had seen small isolated storms or else the gigantic, rare ones known as the Great White Spots," said Agustin Sanchez-Lavega, who is leading this study. Strangely enough, the first storm arose inside a cyclonic vortex, according to images prior to the discovery and obtained months before the Cassini spacecraft was disposed of.

Long-lived, high intensity storms
According to the models developed to simulate these storms, their energy is midway between small and gigantic ones, but the mechanism causing them to gradually emerge at different altitudes on the planet is not known, and, more crucially, neither is it known how they manage to keep going for so long.

"On the Earth, storms of this type last a few days at the most, but on Saturn, the first of all the spots remained active for more than seven months," said Sanchez-Lavega. What is more, like the Great White Spots, the fresh storms have only been observed in the northern hemisphere (they've never been spotted in the south) and appear to have been in line with their formation rate of one every 30 to 60 years.

Like other planets with an atmosphere, Saturn is a natural laboratory where it is possible to study the meteorological phenomena taking place on our planet and to test out, under extreme conditions, the models used to explain and predict them.

The study was carried out in wide-ranging international collaboration that has involved the Cassini space mission, which was orbiting the planet until September 2017, the Hubble Space Telescope, the UPV/EHU's PlanetCam camera installed at the Calar Alto Observatory, and a whole network of amateur observers who provided the images allowing the evolution of the phenomenon to be monitored on a day-to-day basis.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Astronomers catch wind rushing out of galaxy

Exploring the influence of galactic winds from a distant galaxy called Makani, UC San Diego's Alison Coil, Rhodes College's David Rupke and a group of collaborators from around the world made a novel discovery. Published in Nature, their study's findings provide direct evidence for the first time of the role of galactic winds - ejections of gas from galaxies - in creating the circumgalactic medium (CGM). It exists in the regions around galaxies, and it plays an active role in their cosmic evolution. The unique composition of Makani - meaning wind in Hawaiian - uniquely lent itself to the breakthrough findings. "Makani is not a typical galaxy," noted Coil, a physics professor at UC San Diego. "It's what's known as a late-stage major merger - two recently combined similarly massive galaxies, which came together because of the gravitational pull each felt from the other as they drew nearer. Galaxy mergers often lead to starburst events, when a substantial amount of gas present in the merging galaxies is compressed, resulting in a burst of new star births. Those new stars, in the case of Makani, likely caused the huge outflows - either in stellar winds or at the end of their lives when they exploded as supernovae." Coil explained that most of the gas in the universe inexplicably appears in the regions surrounding galaxies - not in the galaxies. Typically, when astronomers observe a galaxy, they are not witnessing it undergoing dramatic events - big mergers, the rearrangement of stars, the creation of multiple stars or driving huge, fast winds.

"While these events may occur at some point in a galaxy's life, they'd be relatively brief," noted Coil. "Here, we're actually catching it all right as it's happening through these huge outflows of gas and dust."

Coil and Rupke, the paper's first author, used data collected from the W. M. Keck Observatory's new Keck Cosmic Web Imager (KCWI) instrument, combined with images from the Hubble Space Telescope and the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), to draw their conclusions.

The KCWI data provided what the researchers call the "stunning detection" of the ionized oxygen gas to extremely large scales, well beyond the stars in the galaxy. It allowed them to distinguish a fast gaseous outflow launched from the galaxy a few million year ago, from a gas outflow launched hundreds of millions of years earlier that has since slowed significantly.

"The earlier outflow has flowed to large distances from the galaxy, while the fast, recent outflow has not had time to do so," summarized Rupke, associate professor of physics at Rhodes College.

From the Hubble, the researchers procured images of Makani's stars, showing it to be a massive, compact galaxy that resulted from a merger of two once separate galaxies. From ALMA, they could see that the outflow contains molecules as well as atoms.

The data sets indicated that with a mixed population of old, middle-age and young stars, the galaxy might also contain a dust-obscured accreting supermassive black hole. This suggests to the scientists that Makani's properties and timescales are consistent with theoretical models of galactic winds.

"In terms of both their size and speed of travel, the two outflows are consistent with their creation by these past starburst events; they're also consistent with theoretical models of how large and fast winds should be if created by starbursts. So observations and theory are agreeing well here," noted Coil.

Rupke noticed that the hourglass shape of Makani's nebula is strongly reminiscent of similar galactic winds in other galaxies, but that Makani's wind is much larger than in other observed galaxies.

"This means that we can confirm it's actually moving gas from the galaxy into the circumgalactic regions around it, as well as sweeping up more gas from its surroundings as it moves out," Rupke explained. "And it's moving a lot of it - at least one to 10 percent of the visible mass of the entire galaxy - at very high speeds, thousands of kilometers per second."

Rupke also noted that while astronomers are converging on the idea that galactic winds are important for feeding the CGM, most of the evidence has come from theoretical models or observations that don't encompass the entire galaxy.

"Here we have the whole spatial picture for one galaxy, which is a remarkable illustration of what people expected," he said. "Makani's existence provides one of the first direct windows into how a galaxy contributes to the ongoing formation and chemical enrichment of its CGM."

Thursday, October 31, 2019

D-Orbit and Astrocast sign new agreement for the launch of ten nanosats

Astrocast and D-Orbit have signed an agreement for the launch and deployment in LEO low inclination orbit of ten Astrocast nanosatellites through D-Orbit 's InOrbit NOW Launch Service. The agreement calls for the Astrocast nanosatellites to be launched onboard an Arianespace Vega or Vega C vehicle from Kourou, French Guyana, in the first quarter of 2022. This batch of nanosatellites will make up the Astrocast IoT Nanonsatellite Network's equatorial plane. The Astrocast constellation will consist of eight orbital planes, each consisting of eight operational and two spare satellites. The complete 80-unit Low Earth Orbit network will provide cost-effective two-way communications for the millions of IoT devices in remote areas of the world. Astrocast's constellation is expected to disrupt numerous enterprises, creating substantial efficiencies and cost advantages within key global sectors including maritime, oil and gas, mining, supply chain and logistics, automotive, utilities, and many others. Following an earlier InOrbit NOW mission planned in 2020 to deploy another batch of ten Astrocast satellites in sun-synchronous orbit, this mission will mark a total of twenty Astrocast satellites to be launched and deployed by D-Orbit. During the planned Astrocast mission, the ten nanosatellites will travel inside the DCube dispensers, designed by D-Orbit to reduce vibration and shock levels during launch.

"Reliable access to space is critical for Astrocast as we move quickly to deploy our constellation. We feel D-Orbit is a critical partner in our efforts and we are very excited to further our commitment to working together," said Kjell Karlsen, CFO, Astrocast.

"We are honored to contribute to the expansion of Astrocast's infrastructure in low inclination orbits" commented Renato Panesi, D-Orbit COO.

"This contract expands previous agreements with Astrocast and strengthens the cooperation between the two companies. We feel honored by Astrocast's renewed trust in our company and it's a privilege for D-Orbit to contribute to such an important mission".

CAPTION Ten Astrocast nanosatellites to be launched in low inclination orbit on Arianespace Vega or Vega C