Tag Archives: spacecraft

It isn't hyperbole to say, the survival of our species may depend on a sucessful method of preventing an asteroid impact. (Robert Lea)

Playing Asteroids is No Game: Humanity’s Future Could Depend on Diverting Asteroid Impacts

Earth is surrounded by thousands of Near-Earth Objects, a few of these are potentially hazardous, and fewer still which are classified as planet killers. An impact from the latter carries implications as severe the name suggests. Clearly, we need a method of diverting such objects. In fact, it isn’t hyperbole to say, the survival of our species may depend on it. 

News stories about massive objects skirting close to Earth are pretty common in the media, as a timely example, in April news organisations across the globe reported a mile-wide asteroid passing with just 3.9 miles of our planet. Fortunately, the rock identified as (52768) 1998 OR2, posed no real impact threat. 

 (52768) 1998 OR2 passed within 3.9 miles of Earth last month. A near miss, but it no-means the only NEO out there. @AreciboRadar/Twitter/PA
(52768) 1998 OR2 passed within 3.9 miles of Earth last month. A near miss, but it no-means the only NEO out there. @AreciboRadar/Twitter/PA

Yet, our planet is scarred with the evidence of previous collisions with such objects. The most frequently thought of example is the impact that wiped out the dinosaurs 66-million-years-ago, the scale of which can be seen by examining the Chicxulub crater centred on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. 

The dinosaur destroying asteroid is estimated to have been around 10–15 km in width, but the crater it created was 150 km in diameter and the debris in threw into the atmosphere blacked out the Sun for months as well as triggering massive tidal waves which battered the entire continent of America and other deadly secondary effects. 

Even looking beyond the surface of our own planet, the Moon’s geology is strongly shaped by a history of asteroid impacts, as are the faces of other planets in the solar system.

 Animation depicts a mapping of the positions of known near-Earth objects The animation depicts a mapping of the positions of known near-Earth objects (NEOs) at points in time over the past 20 years and finishes with a map of all known asteroids as of January 2018. Asteroid search teams supported by NASA’s NEO Observations Program have found over 95 per cent of near-Earth asteroids currently known. There are now over 18,000 known NEOs and the discovery rate averages about 40 per week.  (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Animation depicts a mapping of the positions of known near-Earth objects The animation depicts a mapping of the positions of known near-Earth objects (NEOs) at points in time over the past 20 years and finishes with a map of all known asteroids as of January 2018. Asteroid search teams supported by NASA’s NEO Observations Program have found over 95 per cent of near-Earth asteroids currently known. There are now over 18,000 known NEOs and the discovery rate averages about 40 per week. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The truth is the Earth exists within the vicinity of thousands of Near Earth Objects (NEOs), many of which carry the risk of colliding with our planet. If one of these asteroids — referred to as Potentially Hazardous Objects (PHOs) —did strike our planet, it could cause devastating effects including massive property and infrastructure damage, as well as significant loss of life. Within the population of PHOs is a smaller population of objects which could, much like the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs and 75% of all other animal life, trigger a major extinction event. 

It should be abundantly clear that developing a method of mitigating the impact of one of these objects by knocking off its collision course is imperative. Asteroid mitigation has been identified as one of NASA’s ‘Space Technology Grand Challenges’ — problems that require cutting -edge scientific solutions.  Indeed, many other institutions across the globe are working on their own mitigation strategies, each of which comes with its own unique pros and cons.

Should the possibility of an asteroid impact arise, the governments of Earth will be faced with a stark choice. Depending on a number of factors and characteristics they will have to choose between an instantaneous approach or a more gradual method .

Some of these methods and their potential successes and failures are listed below, starting with the more extreme, blunt solutions to asteroid mitigation.

The direct approach

There is probably nothing that constitutes ‘direct approach’ more than tossing a nuclear explosion at a problem. Thus, it may come as no surprise that many research hours have been devoted to devising a scheme in which an asteroid can be diverted with the aid of a nuclear weapon. 

The stark truth of the matter is, if the NEO is spotted on a collision course with Earth with less than 10 years warning, direct intercept with such a device may well be our only hope of diversion. Further to this, these ‘short lead time’ encounters are currently the most likely probable scenarios involving Earth and an encounter with a PHO. 

(NEOSheild 2/ EU Horizons)

Hitting an asteroid with a nuclear weapon obviously provides mitigation by imparting energy to the object to divert it, even if only slightly. Another way of doing this is by slamming the PHO with another object. Instead of imparting nuclear energy, this kinetic impactor is a spacecraft that hits the PHO at a high velocity transferring momentum to it changing its velocity and hopefully diverting its course. 

Interestingly, this method requires the use of a reconnaissance craft to first map the characteristics of the PHO, such as its orbit, size, shape and rotation, even its chemical make-up so that the impact can be perfectly calibrated. One kinetic impactor system currently being researched is the NEOShield-2, which involves the reconnaissance craft launching together with the impactor. The two craft, initially stacked together, will separate with the reconnaissance craft hopefully reaching the asteroid first, and the impactor following through when details are collected.

In March last year, NASA unveiled early plans for a ‘best of both worlds’ mission that unites a kinetic impactor and nuclear device for the purpose of asteroid diversion. The Hypervelocity Asteroid Intercept Vehicle (HAIV) mission craft consists of a fore-body kinetic impactor which smashes into the asteroid, and an aft-body which when deposits a nuclear charge. The beauty of this arrangement is that if the impactor can create a crater in the asteroid, the nuclear blast will occur beneath the surface of the NEO, imparting more energy than a glancing blow could. 

An artist's interpretation of how the  Hypervelocity Asteroid Intercept Vehicle (HAIV) will divert an asteroid (EADS)
An artist’s interpretation of how the Hypervelocity Asteroid Intercept Vehicle (HAIV) will divert an asteroid (EADS)

Both of these missions are still at least ten years from reaching a viable testing-stage. And there is another, deeper problem.

The danger of any direct impact mission is that it could fragment the asteroid in question, especially as some asteroids are merely a loose conglomeration of smaller bodies. This could result in Earth being bombarded with a multitude of meteors — each causing untold destruction. Even worse, if the NEO in question has a core of pure iron, even a nuclear device/ kinetic impactor double-punch is unlikely to divert it.

This is the case if we have little notification of an asteroid’s impact — less than ten years, what if space agencies are granted more time to divert the PHO? 

Diverting asteroids — the gentle way

Methods that require a long lead time tend to be more gentle than short-lead time techniques, and interestingly, also tend to exploit our understanding of physics and energy way beyond that of kinetic energy alone. 

Perhaps the most well-known long-lead-time diversion method involves using gravitational energy to alter the orbit of a NEO. It’s also the most ‘gentle’ of even the long-lead-time methods, not even requiring contact with the asteroid. 

A gravity tractor slowly influences the orbit of a NEO. It is a method that requires a long-lead-time. (NASA)

The idea is to place a spacecraft in orbit alongside a PHO over a period of many years or even decades. The gravitational influence of the gravity tractor gradually pulls the asteroid off course, thus preventing a close encounter with the earth. The gravity tractor method would work on asteroids of all compositions, and shapes, even if they are collections of smaller bodies, loosely gravitationally bound. There is a limit to the size of an asteroid that could be gravitationally pulled, however, making this a technique that is unlikely to tug a planet killer.

The theory behind gravity tractors is so robust and the control it allows is so precise, that it has even been suggested that the method could be used to place asteroids in positions where they could be beneficial for humanity — allowing them to be used for research or even commercial purposes. 

A less ‘contactless’ version of the gravity tractor approach, involves using an actual physical tether to divert the asteroid to a higher orbit. The tethered object would be smaller than the NEO and could either be a spacecraft launched from earth, or another NEO. The concept behind this method is that attaching the larger body to a smaller one changes the centre of mass of the body and thus adjusts its orbit. 

One potential drawback of the system is that is likely to require some pretty intensive surface operations, especially if the tether is to be attached to two NEOs. It also carries the risk of the tether becoming tangled, meaning before any operation was undertaken the motion of the PHO would have to be known precisely.

Though the message is clear if the paint method is going to work, researchers may want to consider a more even coating. (Robert Lea)

One of the most ‘out there’ ideas to divert an asteroid on course to strike the Earth involves spraying a thin layer of powdered paint on one side of an asteroid and allowing radiation from the Sun to alter the asteroid’s orbital path. The paint coating changes the amount of radiation reflected by the asteroid’s surface. This leads to unequal heating within the body, and thermal particles being ejected more strongly on one-side than the other. As a result, a strong net force is created which over the course of several years can shift the asteroid’s orbit. 

Again, these methods which are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of mitigation strategies, are still very much in the developmental phase, and moving them into the test stages could be a matter of some urgency. 

It’s a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’

“An asteroid collision would be something against which we have no defence… This is not science fiction; it is guaranteed by the laws of physics and probability.” 

— Stephen Hawking, Brief Answers to Big Questions, [2018].

If 2020 teaches humanity nothing else it should impart the lesson that we are simply not ready to deal with some of the hazards that nature can and will throw at us. If the strategies put in place to deal with a potential pandemic strike us as slap-shot, underwhelming and inadequate, the provisions taken thus far to prevent an asteroid strike fall considerably short of even this. 

The only real hope we have of diverting a PHO as things currently stand is spotting it well in advance and getting a satisfactorily long-lead time. But still, there is very little in the way of infrastructure in place to deal with such an eventuality.

Just as historians may one day look back at the MERS and SARS outbreaks as stark warnings of a coronavirus pandemic that governments around the world failed to take heed of, so too they may consider the close brush with 99942 Apophis as a warning to prepare for asteroid incursion.

The NEO with a diameter of 370 meters caused concern in December 2004 when observations indicated there was a 2.7% chance that on a future sweep past our planet in April 2029, it would strike the planet. Estimations changed between 2004 and 2006, first appearing that 99942 Apophis would miss both the Earth and the Moon, with the possibility that during the 2029 encounter it would pass through a gravitational keyhole, that would result in it impacting the planet in 2036. 

Fortunately, by 2008 it had been determined that the asteroid would both miss the Earth and the 1km gravitational keyhole that would shift it onto a collision course in 2036. As it currently stands, 99942 Apophis has a 1 in 150,000 chance of colliding with our planet in 2068. Pretty slim. But, unfortunately, 99942 Apophis is hardly the only PHO out there, and there are many that we have yet to discover. 

The trail in the key over Russia left by the Chelyabinsk Meteor. ( Alex Alishevskikh/ CCbySA2.0)

The Chelyabinsk meteor provides a stark example of such an unknown object. The object with a 20-meter diameter entered Earth’s atmosphere over Russia on 15th February 2013. Due to its high velocity and shallow entry angle, the meteor broke apart in an airburst at around 30 km over the Chelyabinsk Oblast. The energy it released was so potent that the airburst was brighter than the Sun, and could be seen from a distance of 62 miles away.

Over 1,500 people were injured as a result of the blast. 

Should it have actually hit the surface of our planet, impacting in a region with a population of 3.5 million people, it would have been the equivalent of the detonation of around 500 kilotonnes of TNT — around 33 times the energy released by the detonation of the atomic bomb that devastated Hiroshima. 

We had literally no idea it was there. We still don’t know where it came from.

The real key to asteroid mitigation is increased investment in space science and infrastructure. Developing mitigation strategies isn’t enough, as Chelyabinsk shows, we need to also focus on detection methods.

Hopefully, this is a lesson that won’t be learned in hindsight, because as Hawking predicted in his final work shortly before his death in 2018, this is inevitable. And as estimates made using Earth’s history as a guide, collisions with an object of the size of 99942 Apophis occur roughly once every 80,000 years. That means we are currently well-overdue. 

Sources and Further Reading 

Sugimoto. Y, Radice. G, Ceriotti. M, et al, Hazardous Near-Earth asteroid mitigation campaign planning based on uncertain information on fundamental asteroid characteristics, Acta Astronautica, [2014]

Foster. C, Bellerose. J, Mauro. D, et al, Mission concepts and operations for asteroid mitigation involving multiple gravity tractors, Acta Astronautica, [2013]

Lu. E, The Project B612 Concept, ARC, [2012]

Dearborn. D, 21st Century Steam for Asteroid Mitigation, ARC, [2012]

Spitale. J. N, Asteroid Hazard Mitigation Using the Yarkovsky Effect, Science, [2012]

Belton. M. J. S, Morgan T. H, Samarasinha N. H, Yeomans D. K, Mitigation of Hazardous Comets and Asteroids, Cambridge University Press. 

Hawking. S, Brief Answers to Big Questions, Hodder & Stoughton, [2018].

Kinetic impactor
The principle of the kinetic impactor mitigation method is that the NEO or Asteroid is deflected following an impact…www.neoshield.eu

NASA – National Aeronautics and Space Administration
By providing strategic guidance, the Strategic Integration (SI) Office in collaboration with Stakeholders from the…www.nasa.gov

An Innovative Solution to NASA’s NEO Impact Threat Mitigation
An Innovative Solution to NASA’s NEO Impact Threat Mitigation Grand Challenge and Flight Validation Mission…www.nasa.gov

This illustration shows the MAVEN spacecraft and the limb of Mars. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

A brief history of Martian spacecraft and landers

This illustration shows the MAVEN spacecraft and the limb of Mars. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

This illustration shows the MAVEN spacecraft and the limb of Mars. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Since Nicolaus Copernicus first described Mars’ rotation around the sun in his heliocentrism theory in 1543, the Red Planet has been an object of fascination. From Eugene Antoniadi‘s first production of the most accurate maps of Mars in the pre-Space Age era, to the InSight lander, our gaze has always reached skyward toward the planet which the Romans named after the God of War.

In his 1990 book, “Mars Beckons,” John Noble Wilford stated “Mars tugs at the human imagination like no other planet. With a force mightier than gravity, it attracts the eye to the shimmering red presence in the clear night sky.”

It has been with that outlook that mankind has pursued exploration. The latest vehicle to touch down is InSight probe, with the Mars 2020 Rover next on the planet’s dance card, and a manned landing is supposedly 20 years down the road (although to be fair, boots on Mars have always been 20 years down the road since the 1960s).

With new discoveries seemingly happening on a regular basis, we should all remember some of exploits Mars exploration’s past which is helping shape its future.

The arms race to Mars

When robotic exploration first began, the Soviet Union looked to have the early lead. Only three years after a successful Sputnik launch, they decided to bypass any moon exploration and head straight for our nearest planet. Their first two tries with the romantically named 1M No.1 and 1M No.2 in October 1960 were both destroyed before even reaching orbit. Attempt number three on October 24, 1962 with 2MV-4 No.1 — more tongue-pleasingly known as Sputnik 22 — made it only slightly farther, arriving in Earths low-orbit before it too was destroyed. Their fourth attempt with the orbiter Mars 1 made it beyond Earth’s gravity for almost five months before contact was lost.

Two years later in 1964, the United States tried their luck with mixed results. An hour into Mariner 3‘s mission, problems were found with the solar panels. Ground crews were unable to fix the issue before the batteries died and the mission was considered a failure. However, Mariner 4, launched 23 days later, was officially the first successful craft to reach Mars in its July 14, 1965 flyby.

General view of Mars-2 and Mars-3 spacecraft. Credit: Public Domain.

Two days after Mariner 4 made it out of Earth’s orbit, the USSR sent off Zond 2, which actually reached Mars, but experienced radio failure and no data was received. After several more failures, the Soviets finally hit paydirt (sort of) when Mars 2 entered Martian orbit on November 27, 1971 where it made 362 trips around the planet. The lander which accompanied Mars 2 officially became the first human-made object to land on Mars. Although “land” would be a relative term, as it actually “landed” with all of the grace of a demolition derby, pancaking itself onto the surface after the parachute failed to deploy.

With Mars 3 though, the Soviet Union could say they became the first country to successfully place a craft on Mars. The orbiter made its first trip around the Red Planet on December 3, 1971 while the lander successfully touched down and began transmissions to its sister craft…for 20 seconds. After that, the transmission was lost and never recovered. The failure is thought to have been due to a dust storm, and sadly, that was the last major success for the Soviets. A later flight, Mars 5, returned 180 frames back to Earth before the spacecraft’s pressurized instrument compartment began to leak. Only 43 of those pictures were of usable quality.

The U.S. scored another victory when Mariner 9 became the first craft to return a large number of usable photos. Orbiting Mars for nearly a year, it sent back 7,329 photos and discovered the tops of dormant volcanoes and a huge rift across the planet later coined Valles Marineris.

Viking 1 was the first of two spacecraft (along with Viking 2) sent to Mars as part of NASA's Viking program. Credit: NASA JPL.

Viking 1 was the first of two spacecraft (along with Viking 2) sent to Mars as part of NASA’s Viking program. Credit: NASA JPL.

Fast forward to Viking 1 whose images became iconic as the first ever taken from Mars, revealing an awe-inspiring desert landscape. Data from Viking 1 returned its first data on July 20, 1976, seven years to the day of the first Moon landing. The Viking 1 orbiter rounded the planet 1,385 times while the lander operated for 2,245 sols and revealed that the composition of Mars was almost identical to meteorites which had been found on Earth. Its sister craft, Viking 2‘s orbiter circled Mars 700 times with its lander operating for 1,281 sols.

Shortly after landing on Mars, on July 20, 1976, the Viking 1 Lander returned the first panoramic view of the Martian surface. Credit: NASA JPL.

Shortly after landing on Mars, on July 20, 1976, the Viking 1 Lander returned the first panoramic view of the Martian surface. Credit: NASA JPL.

One of the more famous losses in the Mars saga came with the Mars Observer. In an era of “Better, Faster, Cheaper”, the project was estimated to have cost NASA $813 million, four times the original budget. NASA lost radio communications with the craft and never regained it. The mission was considered lost just before it was supposed to achieve Mars orbit on August 21, 1993.

“That was a really, really horrible feeling to have worked on something for five or six years, and then suddenly it’s all gone,” said InSight science lead Bruce Banerdt, who worked on the Mars Observer, on NASA’s On a Mission podcast. “Later on, they found a design flaw in the propulsion system, which likely allowed the fuel to mix with the oxidizer in the wrong place, and probably blow a hole in the side of the spacecraft.”

Touching down on Martian soil

Sojourner is the Mars Pathfinder robotic Mars rover that landed on July 4, 1997 in the Ares Vallis region. Credit: NASA JPL.

Sojourner is the Mars Pathfinder robotic Mars rover that landed on July 4, 1997 in the Ares Vallis region. Credit: NASA JPL.

When the skateboard-sized Sojourner rover touched the Martian surface in July of 1997, everything changed. Aside from becoming the first wheeled explorer of Mars, its mother lander, Pathfinder, used the novel idea of airbags to land instead of the conventional rockets, a technological first.

Shortly after the arrival of Pathfinder and Sojourner, the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) made its appearance at the Red Planet. Leaving Earth on November 7, 1996, MGS arrived on September 12 the next year and mapped Mars from pole to pole. While it was not made official until Spirit and Opportunity studied the planet seven years later, MGS discovered gullies and a shiny grey mineral called hematite, groundbreaking finds because they are general signs that water once existed. MGS’s mission was extended several times until contact was eventually lost in 2006.

A massive storm on Mars last year finally ended NASA's Opportunity Rover mission after 14 years on the Red Planet. Credit: NASA/JPL.

A massive storm on Mars last year finally ended NASA’s Opportunity Rover mission after 14 years on the Red Planet. Credit: NASA/JPL.

NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Mission (MER) brought about the birth of the rovers Spirit and Opportunity. After seven months in route, the pair landed in January of 2004. It was from Oppy that MGS’s discovery was confirmed — the discovery of jarosite and hematite, two minerals that need water and acidic conditions to be formed. While the two were expected to survive only three months, they long outlived that lifespan. Spirit operated for five years while Oppy finally gave up the ghost in 2018.

Scott Maxwell was a rover driver for Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity, and author of the blog Mars and Me.

“(Spirit) was the first rover I ever drove, and — well, it’s like your first car, or your first crush. Or like both of those things at the same time,” he said in an email. “Spirit was definitely the underdog, because she landed in a part of Mars that turned out to have buried the water evidence she went all the way there to find. She had to survive longer than she was designed to survive, and push herself farther than she was ever meant to go, and even climb a Martian mountain, to find what she went there for. A lot of people gave up on her along the way, but I and a few others never did. And she proved us right, in the end.”

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) was launched on August 12, 2005, for its seven-month voyage to Mars. MRO arrived on March 10, 2006, and began its scientific mission in November 2006. It also just recently made its 60,000th loop around the planet. Upon its creation, MRO carried the most powerful telescopic camera ever flown to another planet. This enabled the satellite to show Martian landscape features as small as a kitchen table from the spacecraft’s low orbital altitude. MRO also plays a critical role in future landing craft.

“We are counting on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter remaining in service for many more years,” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program at the agency’s Washington headquarters. “It’s not just the communications relay that MRO provides, as important as that is. It’s also the science-instrument observations. Those help us understand potential landing sites before they are visited, and interpret how the findings on the surface relate to the planet as a whole.”

The Phoenix Mars Lander took off for its journey on August 4, 2007, and landed on Mars on May 25, 2008. Phoenix was the first in NASA’s Scout Program and was designed to study the history of water and habitability potential in the Martian arctic’s ice-rich soil. A solar-powered lander, it completed its three-month mission and kept working until sunlight waned two months later. The mission was officially ended in May 2010. The Mars Scout Program involved low-cost spacecraft (less than $450 million) but was canceled in 2010 after approval of MAVEN (Mars Atmospheric and Volatile EvolutioN).

Artist's conception of the Curiosity rover vaporizing rock on Mars. The rover landed on Mars in August 2012. Credit: NASA.

Artist’s conception of the Curiosity rover vaporizing rock on Mars. The rover landed on Mars in August 2012. Credit: NASA.

Curiosity, part of NASA’s $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory mission, has one primary goal — to find life, or signs of it at least. It is tasked with characterizing the climate and geography on Mars to see if life had once graced the planet and if it might be suitable to once again sustain life.

Humans on Mars — the ultimate goal

The car-sized rover landed on August 6, 2012, in Gale Crater (or if you’re a detractor…Canada) after a daring sequence that NASA dubbed “Seven Minutes of Terror” due to its novel landing. The spacecraft descended on a parachute, then during the final seconds before landing, the landing system fired rockets to allow it to hover while a tether lowered Curiosity to the surface. The rover then landed on its wheels, the tether was cut, and the landing system flew off to crash-land a safe distance away.

To make its search, Curiosity was armed with an instrument from the Russian Federal Space Agency. The Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons experiment blasts 10 million neutrons into the surface with every pulse. Each of these searches for one atom: hydrogen, one of the primary ingredients in water. Curiosity didn’t have to travel far to find its evidence. Research from the rover found that it’s landing crater could have been habitable for 700 million years.

Maxwell said that driving Curiosity and the two MER rovers was one of the best experiences of his life. “Being a Mars rover driver was like stepping into the fantasy world I had when I was a kid and having it become my reality. And the best part was that I got to take all of humanity along for the ride.”

MAVEN was the second mission selected for the Mars Scout program. It launched on November 18, 2013, and entered orbit around Mars on September 21, 2014. MAVEN’s ongoing mission is to obtain measurements of the Martian atmosphere to further understanding the dramatic climate change that has occurred over the course of its history. In early 2019, the satellite was shifted to a lower orbit to prepare it to take on additional responsibility as a data-relay satellite for NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover.

While previous missions have only studied Mars skin deep, InSight, or the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport for those who like lots of words and have too much time, is investigating Mars’ deep interior with thermal probes and seismometry, an approach scientists believe will address questions about the Mars’ formation and composition. The lander hit the Martian surface in November 2018 and is undergoing a two-year mission to study the deep interior of Mars to learn how all celestial bodies with rocky surfaces, including Earth and the Moon, formed.

“Earth and Mars were molded out of very similar stuff,” said Bruce Banerdt, InSight’s principal investigator at JPL, which leads the mission. “Why did the finished planets turn out so differently? Our measurements will help us turn back the clock and understand what produced a verdant Earth but a desolate Mars.”

There have truly been abundant research and time geared toward discovering more about our nearest celestial neighbor. All of this will hopefully one day pave the way for humans to land on the planet in what would be the greatest feat humans have ever performed outside of Earth’s orbit.

“Someday people will travel to Mars,” said seventh-grader J. Stephen Hartsfield in 1984. “It will be a long trip, but fun. This will be a big step for mankind.”

Credit: JAXA.

Japanese spacecraft takes historic selfie after landing on distant asteroid

Credit: JAXA.

Credit: JAXA.

This week, Japan made space history after one of its spacecraft landed on the surface of the asteroid Ryugu. The small spacecraft collected some dust samples, and then quickly ejected off the asteroid, remaining in its orbit. The whole mission took less than a minute, but in the aftermath, the Hayabusa2 spacecraft had time to take an unusual selfie.

In September 2018, Hayabusa2 launched two rovers to the surface of Ryugu. The one-kilogram rovers are equipped with wide-angle and stereo cameras — which beamed back the first photos from the asteroid’s surface — and are powered by internal rotors, which propel the robots across the asteroid. On February 22, the spacecraft itself landed on the asteroid, where it quickly fired a tantalum bullet at a 300 meters per second into the surface. The procedure was meant to kick up dust into Hayabusa2’s collecting tray.

The spacecraft then jumped off the one-kilometer-wide asteroid surface, but in doing so it also captured a photo of its shadow. In the image, which was just recently released by the Japanese space agency (JAXA), you can even see dark marks on the surface, showing where the spacecraft initially landed about 3.2 billion kilometers from Earth. At the moment the photo was taken, the probe was about 25 meters (82 feet) above the sample site

“The color of the region beneath the spacecraft’s shadow differs from the surroundings and has been discolored by the touchdown,” a JAXA spokesperson said in a press release. “At the moment, the reason for the discoloration is unknown but it may be due to the grit that was blown upwards by the spacecraft thrusters or bullet (projectile).”

The purple circle shows the landing site of Hayabusa 2, while the white dot is a bright marker placed on the surface of the asteroid to help guide the spacecraft. Credit: JAXA.

JAXA also released an image featuring the landing site prior to touchdown. While it’s not clear what caused the discoloration, this image clearly shows no odd features, which can only mean that the probe’s activities are responsible for dark spots.

The target area (in purple) prior to the sample extraction. Credit: JAXA.

The target area (in purple) prior to the sample extraction. Credit: JAXA.

Anyway, Hayabusa2’s work is far from finished. By June, the probe will make another landing on the asteroid — and this time it will try to extract subsurface material by dropping a small explosive device. In December, another similar mission will take place. Finally, in 2020, Hayabusa2 will embark on its long journey back to Earth to return the hard-earned samples it collected over the course of its lifetime. The samples will help scientists answer fundamental questions about the formation of the solar system. They might also inform the space mining industry with regard to the economic potential for similar asteroids.

Four things Jules Verne got right and four he didn’t

Jules Verne is often hailed as the father of science fiction. His unique style is known throughout the world, as he is the second most-translated author after Agatha Christie. He wrote about space, shooting manned projectiles into space, underwater travel, and air travel before any real steps were made, scientifically, in these fields.

Even today, scientists are amazed at how well he predicted certain things; but he was just a man, and some of his predictions never even came close to reality. So let’s take a look at some of the things this amazing Frenchman wrote about, and whether he was onto something or not.

The submarine – Right

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is truly a classic novel. The book chronicles the adventures of Captain Nemo and his submarine, Nautilus. A league is a unit of measurement for distance, and the French league (to which Jules Verne refers) was standardized at 4 km. The ‘twenty thousand leagues’ in the title refer not to the depth, but the distance which the submarine has covered beneath the waves. Captain Nemo’s name is a subtle reference to the Odyssey, and it’s Latin for “no man” or “nobody”.

It’s perhaps Jules Verne’s most well-known work, and the fact that his writing inspired inventors to pursue this idea is simply amazing. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was first published in 1870. The first submarine ever launched that did not rely on human muscle for propulsion was the French Navy submarine Plongeur, launched in 1863. The Plongeur was powered by compressed air and was about as fast and maneuverable underwater as a soggy brick. However, refinements to the submarine design — likely driven, at least in part, by Verne’s depiction of Nautilus — would make it into the fearsome, stealthy weapon of today.

Moon landing – Right

In his humorous From the Earth to the Moon, published in 1865, Jules Verne describes a crew of three people who launch themselves, in a gun-fired projectile, to the Moon.

Looking back on the book with the benefit of hindsight, it’s amazing to see how many similarities there are between Verne’s ideas and the Apollo 11 mission, which actually did put a man on the moon. Also, it’s worth mentioning that he made some calculations that he mentions in the book, which are amazingly accurate for a time when nobody had even considered this. The dimensions of his projectile are very close to those of Apollo 1, and both crews consisted of 3 people. Also, the name of his canon was the Columbiad, while the command module for the American mission was called Columbia, and his projectile also launched from Florida, where all the Apollo missions were launched. The people were then returned by parachuting in the sea, which was also surprisingly accurate.

Some say that Verne’s books inspired later forays into space, others that he simply thought of the most practical solutions to the problems both ‘missions’ would face. Whichever may be the case, they do show what a brilliant and imaginative man Verne was — and how astonishingly close to the mark his ideas fell.

Moon landing – Wrong

By this point, however, it has to be said: while Verne was very accurate on some elements, particularly considering when he penned From the Earth to the Moon and the knowledge available at that time, he was pretty wrong on others.

A gun similar to that shown in the book would have to be extremely long to actually launch a projectile all the way to the moon. And that gives rise to its own set of problems. A canon as long as the Eiffel Tower, for example, could create about 1000g of acceleration. One ‘g’ is the speed with which the Earth’s gravity accelerates you downward — about 9.8 m/s^2 (m/s^2 is the unit of measure for acceleration). In other words, being subjected to one g means that your velocity increases by 9.8 meters per second every second you are under the effect of the force accelerating you. That’s roughly 35 kilometers / 22 miles per hour for each second that elapses.

Acceleration, however, works both ways — it can be negative. If you’re riding in a car at 35 kph and your brakes can slow it down at 1g, you can stop the car fully in one second — and experience 1 g of deceleration. If you’ve ever had to break suddenly, you know what that feels like, even at a speed of only 35 kilometers / 22 miles per hour. That feeling of you lurching forward in the chair while your internal organs are being pulled along is what one ‘g’ feels like. Verne’s gun, however, would apply one thousand times that force to its crew — instantly.

The human body doesn’t have even the slightest chance to resist that kind of acceleration. The record for most g’s endured by a human being belongs to John Stapp, who was subjected to 46.2 g for 1.1s during tests in 1954. The gun would simply turn the people inside the space-faring projectiles into pink goo when fired. Sorry, crew.

So people looking to get into space had to find a better solution. And they did.

Colossal squids – Right, and again, wrong

In several of his novels, Jules Verne speaks about giant squids, which are especially fond of the colder areas of the Earth. The Colossal Squid is believed to reach 12-14 meters, with the largest specimen ever retrieved being 10 meters long (however, beaks found independently of this squid are way bigger than the one this specimen sports). It’s the largest known invertebrate and it has the largest eyes in the animal kingdom.

While in reality there have been very few cases in which these leviathans have been spotted — pretty much all of them at significant depths — these squids are even bigger and more aggressive in the books.

Going to the center of the Earth – Wrong

Perhaps his most well-known work, it’s also arguably one of the most flawed of his creations (from a scientific point of view that is; as science fiction, it’s absolutely brilliant). It speaks about the adventures of a professor who leads his nephew and hired guide down a volcano in Iceland, to come out in Italy. As they went lower and lower, the living organisms they encountered resembled the geological time; as the layers of rocks got older and older, the animals get more and more ancient.

The purchase of the North Pole – Wrong (for now)

In the novel with the same name, Jules Verne writes about people from the same club as those who were trying to get to the moon also trying to buy the North Pole, in order to get access to its natural coal resources. Today, the political situation is a bit different. The North Pole is surrounded by Russia, the United States (via Alaska), Canada, Norway, and Denmark (via Greenland), but they are limited to a 200-nautical-mile area around their coasts, and the rest is administered by the International Seabed Authority.

The jukebox and holograph – Right

That’s right, he anticipated these too. In The Carpathian Castle, some villagers are terrified of a certain castle, from which they can hear voices and see shapes being projected. An intrigued visitor decides to see what is happening, and he finds out that they were hearing recorded sounds and holographic images.

Artist impression of MAVEN spacecraft around MARS. Image: NASA

Solar winds penetrate Martian atmosphere, MAVEN finds – atmospheric loss mechanism unfolds

Only weeks after it became operational around Mars‘ orbit, NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission has uncovered a  new process by which the solar wind can penetrate deep into a planetary atmosphere, past the ionosphere even this shouldn’t have been possible. It seems like a magic trick at the moment, but in time this mechanism might help explain how Mars has gone from an atmosphere rich planet, similar to the one found today on Earth, to one that’s less than 1% thick. This is the first time comprehensive measurements of the composition of Mars’ upper atmosphere and electrically charged ionosphere were made.

A leaky planet

Artist impression of MAVEN spacecraft around MARS. Image: NASA

Artist impression of MAVEN spacecraft around MARS. Image: NASA

Each time it completes a full revolution around Mars’ orbit, MAVEN takes a dip inside Mars’ ionosphere – the layer of ions and electrons extending from about 75 to 300 miles above the surface which serves as a shield against solar radiation gusting from solar winds. Here’s where the funny parts starts though. In theory, solar winds – hot, high-energy particles – should be deflected by the ionosphere, so you’d think you can only detect these in the upper atmosphere. Considering MAVEN’s orbit, the probe’s instruments shouldn’t be able to pickup any charged particles when it dips through the ionosphere, but it has.

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MAVEN’s Solar Wind Ion Analyzer found solar-wind particles that are not deflected but penetrate deep into Mars’ upper atmosphere and ionosphere. What happens, NASA scientists reckon, is upper atmosphere interactions transform the charged ions into a neutral form that can penetrate the ionosphere shield. Once there, the stream emerges in ion form again, in all its former glory, retaining all its solar wind characteristics. Something fishy is definitely going on, and scientists believe this peculiar, Hudini-like mechanism makes it easier to link drivers of atmospheric loss directly to activity in the upper atmosphere and ionosphere.

“We are beginning to see the links in a chain that begins with solar-driven processes acting on gas in the upper atmosphere and leads to atmospheric loss,” said Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN principal investigator with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “Over the course of the full mission, we’ll be able to fill in this picture and really understand the processes by which the atmosphere changed over time.”

Using MAVEN’s Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer, NASA scientists are now studying how gases are escaping from the upper atmosphere, where the loss is happening, by figuring out a connection between the lower atmosphere – close to the planet’s surface – and the ionosphere. Instruments so far reveal there’s an orderly structure of ionized and neutral gases in the upper atmosphere and ionosphere, in stark contrast to the lower atmosphere where the gases are well mixed. By studying variations in these abundances over time, researchers may gain new insights into the physics and chemistry of this region.

The MAVEN probe arrived in Martian orbit on Nov. 16, after being launched in 2013.

Source: NASA

Comet 67 full colour

First full colour image of Comet 67P captured by Rosetta probe; meanwhile, Philae lost a leg

Only a couple of weeks ago, a historic rendezvous between the Rosetta spacecraft and Comet 67P was made after a 10-year round-trip journey of four billion miles. Most importantly, the Rosetta deployed its lander, Philae, safely on the comet’s surface which is set to soon beam back important information pertaining to the comet’s inner composition and other details. For instance, we already know there are organic molecules on the comet, a find that has great implications for planetary formation theory as well as alien life. Now, we’re all in for a treat – a ‘true’ colour photo of the comet taken by Rosetta.

Comet 67P, now in colour

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko by Rosetta's OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on 3 August 2014 from a distance of 285 km. The image resolution is 5.3 metres/pixel. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko by Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on 3 August 2014 from a distance of 285 km. The image resolution is 5.3 metres/pixel.
Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS

The press has shown so many artsy black and white photos of 67P that one might fall for it and believe that’s how the comet really looks like. Besides the Navcam, which can only capture images in grey-scale, Rosetta has another optical instrument called OSIRIS  – a dual imaging system operating in the visible, near infrared and near ultraviolet wavelength ranges. It too lacks colour sensors, but makes up for it with filter wheels which allow for the imaging of wavelengths in red, green and blue. When each frequency is combined, a true colour image can be built.

“We’ve seen crags, its weird kidney shape and all sorts of dramatic shadows playing across the comet’s surface. One thing all those images have in common is that they’re in stark, artsy black and white,” said Amanda Kooser. “This leaves us with a curious question: what does 67P look like in color?”

Imaged below is Comet 67P as it really looks like: reddish-brown. It’s important to note that the image was doctored to make up for blurs resuling from an offset between exposure times for each of the three frequencies.

Comet 67 full colour

Image Credit: ESA/AGU

According to the report authors, “the full nucleus will be mapped at multiple resolutions” and the mapping “will include imaging using the full spectral range of… the OSIRIS imaging system (245nm to 1000nm in 11 optical filters). The color mapping will be done under good illumination condition at ~1m/pixel as part of the pyramid arc approach phase. This will later be followed by higher resolution imaging (down to 20 cm/pixels) of parts of the nucleus.”

“Rosetta’s comet will continue to be a source of fascination,” Kooser added. “Whether this image depicts what the comet would look like if you happened to be looking at it while riding on Rosetta, it definitely offers up a new perspective on our previously gray-scale viewpoint.”

A one leg short lander

In other news, the Philae lander may could become operational as early as March 2015. Currently, it landing probe is offline since it receives only one hour of sunshine a day – far too little energy to power its communications or heat the batteries, for that matter, which are now frozen in temperatures of -170 degrees Celsius. The lander bounced several times off the comet before landing, and its location is current unknown. Russian scientists believe, however, that it may have scraped a crater with one of its legs during landing, according to magnetic field data from the Rosetta Lander Magnetometer and Plasma Monitor (ROMAP).  The scrape may have sent the lander spinning away from its intended landing site.

“It was not a touchdown like the first one, because there was no signature of a vertical deceleration due to a slight dipping of our magnetometer boom as measured during the first and also the final touchdown,” ROMAP co-principal investigator Hans-Ulrich Auster said in a statement. “We think that Philae probably touched a surface with one leg only — perhaps grazing a crater rim — and after that the lander was tumbling.”


China’s lunar probe as seen against the limb of the Earth. (c) CCTV

China’s rover on route for the moon and first lunar landing in 40 years

In the early hours of December 2nd, China deployed its Chang’e-3 spacecraft on route for the moon after launching it via a  Long March 3B rocket from the Xichang launch centre in Sichuan. The spacecraft is expected to reach lunar orbit in about 4 days, if everything goes as planned. On 14 December, the probe is expected to touch base with the moon at Sinus Iridium and release a rover. If successful, this would be the first soft landing since the Soviet Luna-24 mission in 1976.

China’s lunar probe as seen against the limb of the Earth. (c) CCTV

China’s lunar probe as seen against the limb of the Earth. (c) CCTV

This is the third spacecraft deployed by China to the moon, after previously  Chang’e 2 and  Chang’e 1 moon orbiters successfully entered lunar orbit. This time, instead of crashing the probes, Chinese scientists hope to direct  Chang’e 3 for a soft landing and release a six-wheeled rover named Yutu, the ‘jade rabbit’ companion of the Moon goddess Chang’e. On the moon’s surface, Yutu will perform various experiments using its built-in cameras, an ultraviolet telescope and an X-ray spectrometer mounted on a robotic arm.

China has a slew of other ambitious space projects lined up as well, like  its own space station by 2020  and plans of sending a robot to the moon within two years and also to bring a lunar sample home by 2017.

Liberty rocket into space

The new Liberty rocket aims to bring manned space launches back on US soil by 2015

Since the space shuttle program was cancelled last year, NASA has been looking for various alternatives to sending manned crews in space, particularly the International Space Station. A number of private space companies have jumped on the bandwagon since then, spearheaded by SpaceX, which is slated to make its first flight to the International Space Station next week, once with the launch of its unmanned Dragon capsule. Still, an alternative for launching astronaut crews in space to the now defunct shuttle and the currently in use Soyuz rental-spacecraft has yet to have been materialized. It’s pretty clear by now that NASA maybe would’ve been better off postponing the shuttle retirement by a few years – then again, it’s not like anyone from congress cares about the space agency anymore; see the ever dwindling budget cuts.

Liberty rocket into space

Alliant Techsystems (ATK), however, an Utah based company, is very confident that it can supply the next spacecraft capable of manning space missions in the form of its soon to be completed Liberty rocket. A Frankenstein-like contraption, the rocket is half space shuttle side boosters, half  European Ariane 5 – the rocket which has sent the most telecommunication satellites into space ever.  The company boosts that both are proven, reliable systems, which already exist and encompass billions of dollars worth of research. By combining the two, ATK hopes to have its first manned launch by 2015.

Besides, the two shuttle/Ariane modules, ATK has also added a capsule to go on top of the rocket to carry astronauts, which comes with an abort system to pull the capsule clear of Liberty if there is a malfunction. The capsule is also fitted with a propulsion module to carry it through space


Planet orbiting around two suns found by Kepler

A remarkable discovery which turns once again turns fiction into reality, the Kepler spacecraft has found the first confirmed planet to orbit around two suns, much like the iconic Tatooine in the Star Wars Universe.

It’s by no means habitable, however. Located 200 light years from Earth and the size of Jupiter, the planet dubbed Kepler-16b, is half rock, half gas and has surface temperature ranging from -70C to -100C. It’s not a haven for never ending sunshine either, like some of you might have imagined, since two suns are in too close of proximity. Thus, a double sunset phenomenon is experienced and once ever 20.5 days the two sun come together into an eclipse.

“This discovery confirms a new class of planetary systems that could harbor life. Given that most stars in our galaxy are part of a binary system, this means the opportunities for life are much broader than if planets form only around single stars,” said Kepler principal investigator William Borucki in a NASA statement. “I am going to guess there are 2 million more such dual-sun planets,” said Laurance Doyle, the lead researcher on the Kepler-16b report.

While Kepler’s main goal is that of finding Earth-like planets, Doyle, who I’m willing to bet is a big Star Wars fan, has taken the liberty to search for binary systems capable of housing planets and he’s been doing it for the past 20 years – finally he’s struck gold. Alan Boss, a researcher at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington DC , said “this discovery is stunning. Once again, what used to be science fiction has turned into reality,” he said.

While planetary binary systems have well been dubbed a valid hypothesis up until now, they’ve more or less stayed in the realm of Hollywood.

The binary system was observed after unusual signals in the data collected by the Kepler spacecraft. The data showed that the system had two stars orbiting one another, which regular intervals of brightness shift due to the eclipses. Further investigation showed a third eclipse described by additional dimming in brightness events, called the tertiary and quaternary eclipses, indicating that the stars were in different positions in their orbit each time the third body passed. The subtle drop of light from the star was attributed to a third planet, Kepler-16b.

Josh Carter, a co-author on the study, at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, said: “Kepler-16b is the first confirmed, unambiguous example of a circumbinary planet – a planet orbiting not one, but two stars. Once again, we’re finding that our solar system is only one example of the variety of planetary systems nature can create.”



NASA's Dawn spacecraft obtained this image with its framing camera on July 17. It was taken from a distance of about 9,500 miles away from the protoplanet Vesta. Each pixel in the image corresponds to roughly 0.88 miles. (c) NASA

NASA’s DAWN spacecraft successfully enters Vesta’s orbit. Snaps detailed photo

This weekend, NASA‘s DAWN spacecraft finally put a lot of tension and nerves to rest after it successfully entered Vesta’s orbit, the second largest object in the Asteroid Belt.

NASA's Dawn spacecraft obtained this image with its framing camera on July 17. It was taken from a distance of about 9,500 miles away from the protoplanet Vesta. Each pixel in the image corresponds to roughly 0.88 miles. (c) NASA

NASA's Dawn spacecraft obtained this image with its framing camera on July 17. It was taken from a distance of about 9,500 miles away from the protoplanet Vesta. Each pixel in the image corresponds to roughly 0.88 miles. (c) NASA

The whole event took place at 1 a.m. EDT Saturday (0500 GMT), marking the first time a man made spacecraft entered the orbit of an object from the Asteroid Belt. Although everything was set in motion according to plan, scientists from NASA’s Dawn mission control center at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. were pretty nervous anyway since the lag between transmissions meant Dawn could not communicate with Earth while its ion thrusters were firing. Everything went smooth, though.

“Dawn slipped gently into orbit with the same grace it has displayed during its years of ion thrusting through interplanetary space,” said Marc Rayman, Dawn chief engineer and mission manager at JPL. “It is fantastically exciting that we will begin providing humankind its first detailed views of one of the last unexplored worlds in the inner solar system.”

Observed by astronomers around the world for the last 200 years, first with land telescopes and then with massive space orbiting magnifiers, this incredible photo as seen above in this article is the most detailed look upon Vesta so far, as seen by DAWN on July 17.

“We are beginning the study of arguably the oldest extant primordial surface in the solar system,” said Dawn principal investigator Christopher Russell, of UCLA, in a statement.

Vesta is thought to be the source of a large number of meteorites that fall to Earth, according to NASA, and at 330 miles (530 kilometers) wide, Vesta is actually considered a protoplanet. The huge asteroid was on its way to becoming a full-fledged rocky planet like Earth or Mars before Jupiter’s gravity stirred up the asteroid belt, astronomers believe.

NASA’s Dawn will continue to circle Vesta’s orbit for the next year, as it transmit data back home which hopefully will help scientists better understand the solar system’s early days and the processes that have formed and shaped the rocky planets. The protoplanet and Dawn are about 117 million miles away from Earth.

Jules Verne On Track For Long Journey To ISS

jules verne atvA few days ago, Europe launched an impressive spacecraft, an Automated Transfer Vehicle (or ATV) which is able to transport about 7.6 tonnes of supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). Although it lacks an official name, it was nicknamed “Jules Verne”.

But it appeared to have some minor problems, which have been solved later. Following an overnight recovery operation, Jules Verne ATV’s propulsion system has successfully been restored to full robustness. Since that happened, the spacecraft completed manoeuvers necessary to set up with the ISS.

Flight control and engineering support teams had to accomplish difficult tasks in order to set things straight, probably the most difficult thing being re-integrating an electronics box which drives that part of the propulsion system were up-linked to the spacecraft; they did this from within the control center in Tolouse, France.

The Jules Verne ATV seems prepared and made some manoeuvres necessary for its parking in front of the ISS and it also made a demonstration of the spacecraft’s Collision Avoidance Manoeuvre capability. It remains on schedule for docking with the ISS – 3 April.

Avalanches On Mars Photographed By NASA Spacecraft

mars avalancheFor a whole lot of time Mars has fascinated scientists, which during the time made some crazy theories, of whch some included martians living there, or a lost civilization that used to live there, and that kind of stuff. Now, they are sure that nothing else except microorganisms live there, but who knows what tomorrow will bring?

Anyway, meanwhile it remains a source of fascinating phenomenae and we have a lot to learn from that planet. A NASA spacecraft in orbit around Mars has taken the first ever image of active avalanches near the Red Planet’s north pole. The image shows tan clouds billowing away from the foot of a towering slope, where ice and dust have just cascaded down.

“We were checking for springtime changes in the carbon-dioxide frost covering a dune field, and finding the avalanches was completely serendipitous,” said Candice Hansen, deputy principal investigator for HiRISE, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

“We don’t know what set off these landslides,” said Patrick Russell of the University of Berne, Switzerland, a HiRISE team collaborator. “We plan to take more images of the site through the changing Martian seasons to see if this kind of avalanche happens all year or is restricted to early spring.”