Saturday, July 27, 2019

Europe prepares for Mars courier

The first round-trip to the Red Planet will see a European orbiter bringing martian samples back to Earth. ESA is opening the door to industry to build the spacecraft that will deliver the precious rocks, dust and gas from Mars - the key to understanding whether life ever existed on our closest planetary neighbour. This 'take-away' service is called the Earth Return Orbiter, and will be ESA's major contribution to the Mars Sample Return campaign. The ESA Orbiter will carry NASA's Capture and Containment and Return System, which will rely on the ESA-led spacecraft for transit to and from Mars. Three launches from Earth and one from Mars - the first ever from another planet -, two rovers and an autonomous capture in Mars orbit are all part of an ambitious series of missions that ESA is embarking on together with NASA. The campaign aims to bring at least 500 grams of samples back from the Jezero crater that once held a lake and contains an ancient preserved river delta. The rocks in the area preserve information about Mars' diverse geology. NASA's Mars 2020 rover that is slated for launch in July 2020 will scientifically select the best samples to store in tubes and deposit them onto the martian surface for later retrieval. ESA is also studying concepts for a small 'fetch' rover to scurry quickly across the martian surface to locate and recover the stored samples. It would then carry them back to a football-sized canister that would be launched with a NASA Mars Ascent System - a small rocket.

Bringing samples from Mars is the logical next step for robotic exploration and it will require multiple missions that will be more challenging and more advanced than any robotic missions before. Accomplishments in robotic exploration in recent years have increased confidence in success - multiple launches will be necessary to deliver samples from Mars.
ESA is working with NASA to explore mission concepts for an international Mars Sample Return campaign between 2020 and 2030.
Three launches will be necessary to accomplish landing, collecting, storing and finding samples and delivering them to Earth.
NASA's Mars 2020 mission will explore the surface and rigorously document and store a set of samples in canisters in strategic areas to be retrieved later for flight to Earth.
Two subsequent missions are foreseen to achieve this next step.
A NASA launch will send the Sample Retrieval Lander mission to land a platform near the Mars 2020 site. From here, a small ESA rover - the Sample Fetch Rover - will head out to retrieve the cached samples.
Once it has collected them in what can be likened to an interplanetary treasure hunt, it will return to the lander platform and load them into a single large canister on the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV). This vehicle will perform the first liftoff from Mars and carry the container into Mars orbit.
ESA's Earth Return Orbiter will be the next mission, timed to capture the basketball-size sample container orbiting Mars. The samples will be sealed in a biocontainment system to prevent contaminating Earth with unsterilised material before being moved into an Earth entry capsule.
The spacecraft will then return to Earth, where it will release the entry capsule for the samples to end up in a specialised handling facility.
ESA and NASA are exploring the concepts for these missions, with ESA assessing the Sample Fetch Rover and Earth Return Orbiter. These will provide input to ESA's 2019 council at ministerial level, where approval will be sought for the missions. Mars Sample Return overview infographic.

The Earth Return Orbiter will capture the canister in orbit and transfer it safely to Earth, a return trip that will take about 13 months.

"We will have the responsibility of finding, capturing and transporting these precious martian treasures home for careful analysis in state-of-the-art labs on our planet," explains Sanjay Vijendran, ESA's Mars Sample Return campaign coordinator. "It's an interplanetary treasure hunt!"

Bringing Mars back to Earth

The Earth Return Orbiter is set to get onto the launch pad by 2026 from Europe's spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. Through this call, ESA will be selecting a prime contractor for the spacecraft.

"The mission is becoming a reality, and we are proud to give European industry the chance to join the challenge," says Orson Sutherland, study manager for the Earth Return Orbiter.

The main challenges are the electric propulsion and power generation. "Not to forget finding and navigating the spacecraft to rendezvous with the football sized orbiting sample over 50 million km away from ground control," adds Orson.

The spacecraft will use technological heritage from ESA's most recently launched science mission, BepiColombo: both use electric propulsion and multi-stage detachable modules.

"Europe is ready to do its bit for the Mars Sample Return campaign, in close partnership with NASA, and is up to the challenge of putting the spacecraft onto the launch pad in 2026," says Orson.

Friday, July 26, 2019

India's lunar probe Chandrayaan-2 completes first orbit manoeuver

India's second Moon Mission, Chandrayaan-2 completed its first orbit manoeuver successfully. The Earthbound manoeuvers of the spacecraft will be executed starting Thursday, and it is scheduled to reach the Moon by 20th August 2019. The second orbit manoeuver is planned for 26th July. India's Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launched its ambitious deep space mission on Monday (22nd July) from its spaceport at Sriharikota on the eastern shore in Andhra Pradesh. Billed as one of the most challenging missions ever according to ISRO Chief K. Sivan, the launch was initially scheduled for 15th July 2019 but had to be rescheduled due to a technical snag. In a swift operation, the ISRO scientists normalized the spacecraft and launcher in 24 hours and corrected the snag in the next 36 hours, said Sivan after the launch. ISRO will carry out 15 crucial manoeuvres in the next six weeks and finally bring the Chandrayaan-2 around the Moon for a soft landing near its the South Pole. Chandrayaan-2 - an orbiter, lander and rover, is scheduled to land on the Moon on the 48th day or 7th September 2019, covering a distance of about 384,000 Km. It carries 14 payloads to carry out experiments.The success of the mission will take India to the "Big Boy Space Club" as so far only the US, Russia and China have accomplished this feat. It will be the first space mission to attempt to soft-land the lander -Vikram and rover Pragyan in a high plain between two craters at a latitude of about 70 degrees south.

The lunar South Pole is especially interesting because the area there remains in the shadows and is much larger than its the North Pole. There is the possibility of the presence of water, and craters in the cold traps could contain a fossil record of the early Solar System. India's first Lunar Mission in 2008 had identified traces of water on the Moon.

The 3,850 kg spacecraft was fired on a massive rocket, GSLV Mark III, which had a 100 per cent success rate, with two launches and one sub-orbital flight. It is India's most powerful launcher to date and is entirely designed and fabricated in the country.

Chandrayaan-2 is the cheapest among Moon Missions so far. Its total cost is $142 million less than half the budget of the recently released Hollywood movie Avengers: Endgame.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

OneWeb and Airbus start up world's first high-volume satellite production facility in Florida

OneWeb Satellites - a joint venture of OneWeb and Airbus - has officially opened the world's first high-volume, high-speed advanced satellite production facility to bring transformative internet connectivity to everyone, everywhere. Historically, satellites are custom built, costing tens of millions of dollars to build, and taking more than a year to produce a single one. The OneWeb Satellites facility is the first to employ industrial-scale mass production techniques for satellites, enabling dramatically reduced costs and production times that can deliver one satellite per production shift or two a day, while significantly expanding internet connectivity and making space technology far more accessible. "OneWeb Satellites and its partners are transforming the satellite and space industry. By producing high quality satellites at a fraction of the cost and schedule of traditional manufacturers, we are not only enabling OneWeb to connect the planet, we are making space dramatically more accessible to everyone," said Tony Gingiss, CEO of OneWeb Satellites. The facility's production capabilities will first support the rapid scaling of the OneWeb network, starting with a constellation of 650 satellites and scaling to 1,980 satellites delivering global connectivity. With half the world's population unconnected and inconsistent connectivity persisting as people travel more at sea and in the skies, the high-performance communication satellites built in this facility will enable high-speed internet access that can unlock healthcare, education, and economic advancements. "This is a defining moment in the history of OneWeb, and the space industry. With today's opening, we are one step closer to connecting the unconnected for the benefit of societies all over the world," said Adrian Steckel, CEO of OneWeb. "As we gear up for more satellite launches at the end of the year, this facility will ensure we can begin delivering global connectivity in some areas as early as next year and globally in 2021."

The 105,500 square foot production facility, which has two production lines capable of producing two satellites a day, is helping to revitalize Florida's Space Coast with 250 new high-tech jobs and 3,000 indirect jobs through the supply chain.

Government officials including U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, U.S. Senator Rick Scott, U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs Manisha Singh, and business and community leaders in Merritt Island, Florida near the Kennedy Space Center attended the official opening with the team.

For Airbus, this new facility is the latest step in the company's continued and long-standing growth in U.S. manufacturing, job creation and investment. Airbus utilizes 450 U.S. suppliers in 40+ states and has spent more than $187 billion in the U.S. since 1990. Airbus spending in the U.S. supports more than 275,000 American jobs.

"Airbus is manufacturing products in the U.S. from all of our business divisions - commercial aircraft, helicopters and now satellites," said C. Jeffrey Knittel, Chairman and CEO of Airbus Americas. "We take seriously our partnerships in the communities where we do business, and we're proud to contribute our aerospace manufacturing expertise to the Space Coast with 250 new high-tech jobs in Florida. We are equally excited to welcome these new employees to the Airbus OneWeb Satellites team in the U.S."

OneWeb Satellites' game-changing manufacturing technology and facility also represent a tremendous opportunity for other commercial and government customers, providing end-users with dramatic cost savings and opening the door to missions that were previously unthinkable.

"The avenue for unlocking untapped human potential lies, yet to be paved, in space," said Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. "Private industry is a key partner in this effort as we are well on our way to a $1 trillion space economy and fueling a new revolution in technology in orbit."

Chairman Pai added: "Since my first day as Chairman of the FCC, my number one priority has been closing the digital divide and bringing the benefits of the digital age to all Americans. Promoting innovative technologies will be critical to accomplishing that priority. Satellite constellations have the ability to deliver broadband services using a new generation of low-Earth orbit satellite technologies. That's why the FCC under my leadership approved OneWeb's proposal and why I was pleased to attend the opening of OneWeb Satellite's production facility. At the FCC, we'll continue our work to make access to high-speed Internet available across the country."

Monday, July 22, 2019

India launches spacecraft on Moon-landing mission

India launched a bid to become a leading space power Monday, sending up a rocket to put a craft on the surface of the Moon in what it called a "historic day" for the nation. Chandrayaan-2 -- or Moon Chariot 2 -- took off on time at 2:43 pm (0913 GMT) from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre on an island off the coast of Andhra Pradesh state. Applause broke out in the mission control room as the rocket blasted off into the grey skies over the Indian Ocean and mission control announced that the orbiter had broken away from the rocket with no problem. "Today is a historic day for space, science and tech in India," Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) chief K. Sivan said. The launch came a week after a fuel leak forced a previous attempt to be scrubbed 56 minutes before the scheduled blast-off. The South Asian nation is bidding to follow Russia, the United States and China in landing a spacecraft on the Moon. President Ram Nath Kovind watched the launch alongside 7,000 dignitaries and flag-waving children. The rocket carried an orbiter, a lander and a rover, and has been almost entirely designed and made in India. The 2.4-tonne (5,300-pound) orbiter is expected to circle the Moon for about a year, taking images of the surface, looking for signs of water, and studying the atmosphere. The lander -- named after Vikram A. Sarabhai, the father of India's space programme -- will carry the rover and be placed on the surface near the lunar South Pole. The operation is expected to take place in early September. ISRO scientists will remotely control the rover named Pragyaan -- "wisdom" in Sanskrit -- as it carries out experiments. It will work for one lunar day, the equivalent of 14 Earth days, studying rocks and soil on the Moon's surface.

- National pride -

Former NASA scientist Kumar Krishen said India's space agency should be praised for taking on ambitious projects such Chandrayaan-2. "We should keep in mind that space exploration is risky as many systems have failed in the past and many lives lost," he told AFP. Aside from propelling India into the rarefied company of spacefaring nations, Chandrayaan-2 also stands out because of its low cost. About $140 million has been spent on preparations for the mission, a much smaller price tag compared with similar missions by other countries. The United States -- which is marking the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong becoming the first human on the Moon -- spent the equivalent of more than $100 billion on its Apollo missions. Chandrayaan-2, and India's space programme as a whole, are a source of national pride. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has vowed to send a manned mission into orbit by 2022, and India also hopes to seek out lucrative commercial satellite and orbiting deals.

The new mission comes almost 11 years after the launch of India's first lunar mission -- Chandrayaan-1 -- which orbited the Moon and searched for water.

Friday, July 19, 2019

India to make new bid to launch Moon rocket on Monday

India will make a new bid to launch a landmark mission to the Moon on Monday, a week after aborting lift-off at the last minute because of a fuel leak, officials said. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) said it had rescheduled the launch of Chandrayaan-2, or Moon Chariot-2, for 2:43 pm (0913 GMT) on Monday. India is aiming to become just the fourth nation after Russia, the United States and China to land a spacecraft on the Moon. Indian space chiefs called off the planned launch of the rocket 56 minutes before blast-off on Monday morning because of what ISRO called a "technical snag". Media reports quoted ISRO scientists saying a helium fuel leak had been detected. India has spent about $140 million on preparations for the project, which is one of the cheapest among international space powers. By comparison, the United States spent about $25 billion -- the equivalent of more than $100 billion in current prices -- on 15 Apollo missions in the 1960s and 70s. The rocket will launch from a space centre in Sriharikota, an island off the coast of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. It will carry an orbiter, lander and a rover which has been almost entirely designed and made in India. The orbiter is meant to keep circling the Moon for about one year, taking pictures of the surface and sending back information on the atmosphere. A lander named Vikram will take the rover to the surface near the lunar South Pole.

India's first lunar mission in 2008 -- Chandrayaan-1 -- did not land on the Moon, but carried out a search for water using radar.

A soft landing on the Moon would be a huge leap forward in India's space programme, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi determined to launch a manned mission into space by 2022.

India also has ambitions to land a probe on Mars. In 2014, India became only the fourth nation to put a satellite into orbit around the Red Planet.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

New Measurement Adds to Mystery of Universe's Expansion Rate

Astronomers have made a new measurement of how fast the universe is expanding, using an entirely different kind of star than previous endeavors. The revised measurement, which comes from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope (, falls in the center of a hotly debated question in astrophysics that may lead to a new interpretation of the universe's fundamental properties. Scientists have known for almost a century that the universe is expanding, meaning the distance between galaxies across the universe is becoming ever more vast every second. But exactly how fast space is stretching, a value known as the Hubble constant, has remained stubbornly elusive. Now, University of Chicago professor Wendy Freedman and colleagues have a new measurement for the rate of expansion in the modern universe, suggesting the space between galaxies is stretching faster than scientists would expect. Freedman's is one of several recent studies that point to a nagging discrepancy between modern expansion measurements and predictions based on the universe as it was more than 13 billion years ago, as measured by the European Space Agency's Planck satellite. As more research points to a discrepancy between predictions and observations, scientists are considering whether they may need to come up with a new model for the underlying physics of the universe in order to explain it. "The Hubble constant is the cosmological parameter that sets the absolute scale, size and age of the universe; it is one of the most direct ways we have of quantifying how the universe evolves," said Freedman. The discrepancy that we saw before has not gone away, but this new evidence suggests that the jury is still out on whether there is an immediate and compelling reason to believe that there is something fundamentally flawed in our current model of the universe."

In a new paper accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal, Freedman and her team announced a new measurement of the Hubble constant using a kind of star known as a red giant. Their new observations, made using Hubble, indicate that the expansion rate for the nearby universe is just under 70 kilometers per second per megaparsec (km/sec/Mpc). One parsec is equivalent to 3.26 light-years distance.

This measurement is slightly smaller than the value of 74 km/sec/Mpc recently reported by the Hubble SH0ES (Supernovae H0 for the Equation of State) team using Cepheid variables, which are stars that pulse at regular intervals that correspond to their peak brightness. This team, led by Adam Riess of the Johns Hopkins University and Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Maryland, recently reported refining their observations to the highest precision to date for their Cepheid distance measurement technique.

How to Measure Expansion
A central challenge in measuring the universe's expansion rate is that it is very difficult to accurately calculate distances to distant objects.

In 2001, Freedman led a team that used distant stars to make a landmark measurement of the Hubble constant. The Hubble Space Telescope Key Project team measured the value using Cepheid variables as distance markers. Their program concluded that the value of the Hubble constant for our universe was 72 km/sec/Mpc.

But more recently, scientists took a very different approach: building a model based on the rippling structure of light left over from the big bang, which is called the cosmic microwave background. The Planck measurements allow scientists to predict how the early universe would likely have evolved into the expansion rate astronomers can measure today. Scientists calculated a value of 67.4 km/sec/Mpc, in significant disagreement with the rate of 74.0 km/sec/Mpc measured with Cepheid stars.

Astronomers have looked for anything that might be causing the mismatch. "Naturally, questions arise as to whether the discrepancy is coming from some aspect that astronomers don't yet understand about the stars we're measuring, or whether our cosmological model of the universe is still incomplete," Freedman said. "Or maybe both need to be improved upon."

Freedman's team sought to check their results by establishing a new and entirely independent path to the Hubble constant using an entirely different kind of star.

Certain stars end their lives as a very luminous kind of star called a red giant, a stage of evolution that our own Sun will experience billions of years from now. At a certain point, the star undergoes a catastrophic event called a helium flash, in which the temperature rises to about 100 million degrees and the structure of the star is rearranged, which ultimately dramatically decreases its luminosity. Astronomers can measure the apparent brightness of the red giant stars at this stage in different galaxies, and they can use this as a way to tell their distance.

The Hubble constant is calculated by comparing distance values to the apparent recessional velocity of the target galaxies - that is, how fast galaxies seem to be moving away. The team's calculations give a Hubble constant of 69.8 km/sec/Mpc - straddling the values derived by the Planck and Riess teams.

"Our initial thought was that if there's a problem to be resolved between the Cepheids and the Cosmic Microwave Background, then the red giant method can be the tie-breaker," said Freedman.

But the results do not appear to strongly favor one answer over the other, say the researchers, although they align more closely with the Planck results.

NASA's upcoming mission, the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), scheduled to launch in the mid-2020s, will enable astronomers to better explore the value of the Hubble constant across cosmic time. WFIRST, with its Hubble-like resolution and 100 times greater view of the sky, will provide a wealth of new Type Ia supernovae, Cepheid variables, and red giant stars to fundamentally improve distance measurements to galaxies near and far.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Pioneer satellites launched

The latest ESA Partnership Projects mission has launched two tiny supercomputing nanosatellites aboard a Soyuz rocket from Vostochny in Russia. The parallel supercomputing scalable devices, aboard the lightweight, shoebox-sized nanosatellites, can be programmed to both receive and process data while in orbit. This enables them to select high-quality data and immediately transfer it to Earth. Their owner, Spire Global, specializes in using continuous global monitoring to track aircraft, ships and weather patterns using a large constellation of 80 nanosatellites that report to a global network of ground stations. The two new satellites, developed under ESA's Pioneer programme, were designed, built and tested at Spire Global's factory in Glasgow, with support from the UK Space Agency. They were launched aboard a Soyuz Meteor rocket on 5 July. Peter Platzer, chief executive of Spire Global, said: "We see these parallel supercomputing scalable satellites as being extremely important for the next phase of Earth observation applications for the benefit of all mankind. "Just one of our small satellites can collect over a terrabyte of data per day, which would be prohibitive to download. It has to be analysed in orbit so that true insights can be delivered to customers directly and in a timely fashion. A hurricane does not wait for a download window. "It is exciting to see ESA's continued support and focus on deploying these necessary data analytics and capabilities."

Khalil Kably, pioneer programme manager at ESA, said: "The whole idea of the Pioneer programme is to give European and Canadian industries access to space, rapidly and at low cost.

"As soon as they have an innovative idea, such as supercomputing by Spire here, we want them to be able to try it in orbit. It's the ability to go from a new idea to market very quickly, through in-orbit validation."

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Methane vanishing on Mars

The processes behind the release and consumption of methane on Mars have been discussed since methane was measured for the first time for approx. 15 years ago. Now, an interdisciplinary research group from Aarhus University has proposed a previously overlooked physical-chemical process that can explain methane's consumption. For approx. 15 years ago, one could for the first time read about methane in Mars's atmosphere. This aroused great interest, also outside the scientific circles, since methane, based on our knowledge of methane on Earth, is considered a bio-signature, i.e. signs of biological activity and thus life. In subsequent years, one could read articles that alternately reported on methane's presence and absence. This variation led to doubts about the accuracy of the first methane measurements. Recent measurements of methane in Mars' atmosphere have now shown that its dynamics is real enough and the fact that sometimes only very low concentrations can be measured is due to an unresolved mechanism that makes methane disappear from the atmosphere and not a mis-measurement. The methane sources or the causes for its disappearance have not been identified at present. Especially the latter, the rapid disappearance of methane, lacks a plausible mechanistic explanation. The most obvious mechanism, namely the photochemical degradation of methane caused by UV radiation, cannot explain methane's rapid disappearance, which is a prerequisite for explaining the dynamics. Aarhus researchers have just published an article in the journal Icarus in which they propose a new mechanism that can explain the removal of methane on Mars. For years, the multidisciplinary Mars group has investigated the importance of wind-driven erosion of minerals for the formation of reactive surfaces under Mars-like conditions.

For this purpose, the research group has developed equipment and methods for simulating erosion on Mars in their "earthly" laboratories.

Based on Mars-analogue minerals such as basalt and plagioclase, the researchers have shown that these solids can be oxidized and gases are ionized during the erosion processes. Thus, the ionized methane reacts with the mineral surfaces and bonds to them.

The research team has shown that the carbon atom, such as methyl group from methane, directly binds to the silicon atom in plagioclase, which is also a dominant component of Mars' surface material.

What the researchers see in the laboratory could also explain the loss of methane on Mars. By this mechanism, which is much more effective than photochemical processes, methane could be removed from the atmosphere within the observed time and then deposited in the Martian source soil.

Affects the possibility of life
The research group has furthermore shown that these mineral surfaces can lead to the formation of reactive chemicals such as hydrogen peroxide and oxygen radicals, which are very toxic to living organisms, incl. bacteria.

The group's results are important for assessing the possibility of life on or near Mars' surface. In a number of follow-up studies, the researchers will now examine what is going on with the bound methane, and whether the erosion process in addition to the gases in atmosphere also changes or even completely removes more complex organic material, which can either originate on Mars itself or has come to Mars as part of meteorites.

The results thus have an impact on our understanding of the preservation of organic material on Mars and thus the fundamental issue of life on Mars - inter alia in connection with the interpretation of the results of the upcoming ExoMars rover, which ESA is expected to land on Mars in 2021.