When spacecraft return to Earth, they don’t need to shed all their velocity by firing retro-rockets. Instead, they use the atmosphere as a brake to slow down for a soft landing. Every planet in the Solar System except Mercury has enough of an atmosphere to allow aerobraking maneuvers, and could allow high-speed exploration missions. A new paper looks at the different worlds and how a spacecraft must fly to take advantage of this “free lunch” to slow down at the destination.Continue reading “Aerocapture is a Free Lunch in Space Exploration”
Anybody with a modicum of intellectual curiosity is looking forward to the NASA/ESA Mars Sample Return Mission. NASA’s Perseverance rover is busily collecting and caching samples for eventual return to Earth. While the technical and engineering challenges in getting those samples into scientists’ hands here on Earth are formidable, budgeting and funding might be the mission’s biggest headaches.Continue reading “What’s Going on With the Mars Sample Return Mission?”
In October 2023, NASA launched its long-awaited on-again, off-again Psyche mission. The spacecraft is on its way to study the metal-rich asteroid 16-Psyche, an M-type asteroid that could be the remnant core of a planetesimal that suffered a collision long ago. But understanding the giant, metal-rich asteroid isn’t the Psyche mission’s only goal.
It’s also testing a new laser communication technology.Continue reading “We’re Entering a New Age When Spacecraft Communicate With Lasers”
Our Solar System’s ice giants, Uranus and Neptune, have been largely left out of the planetary probe game. While all of the other planets—including even the demoted Pluto—have been the subjects of dedicated missions, the ice giants have not. In fact, the only spacecraft to ever even fly by Uranus and Neptune was Voyager 2 in the late 1980s.Continue reading “Take a Plunge Into the Ice Giants”
The European Space Agency (ESA) is looking to the future and contemplating its next M-class (Medium) mission. These missions are crucial to the ESA Science Programme (part of the agency’s Science Directorate), which aims to provide the best tools to ensure Europe’s continued participation in space exploration and sustain its capabilities in space by fostering innovation, maintaining launch services, and spacecraft operations. The latest round began in December 2021, when the ESA called for proposals for the next M-class mission to launch in the mid-2030s.
In a statement issued yesterday (Wednesday, November 8th), the ESA announced that it had narrowed the list of candidates to three concepts. These include the twin M-MATISSE, the seven-spacecraft Plasma Observatory, and the THESEUS satellite. The final selection will assist ESA operations and research in space by studying the evolution and past habitability of Mars, exploring the plasma environment around Earth, or studying powerful transient events across the Universe. The final selection of one mission is expected to happen by mid-2026.Continue reading “ESA Has a Difficult Choice: Study Mars, Earth's Magnetosphere, or Gamma-Ray Bursts”
In about one year from now, the European Space Agency will launch its Hera mission. Its destination is the asteroid Didymos, and it’ll be the second human spacecraft to visit the 390-meter chunk of rock. NASA’s DART mission crashed a kinetic impactor into Didymos’ tiny moonlet Dimorphos as a test of planetary defence.
Hera will perform a follow-up investigation of the binary asteroid to measure the size and morphology of the impact crater on Dimorphos. To help it along, it’s taking two tiny CubeSats that will land on Dimorphos.Continue reading “ESA’s Hera Mission is Bringing Two Cubesats Along. They’ll Be Landing on Dimorphos”
Why doesn’t Mars have a magnetic field? If it did, the planet would be protected from cosmic radiation and charged particles emitted by our Sun. With a magnetic field, perhaps the Red Planet wouldn’t be the dry, barren world it is today.
It has long been believed that Mars once had a global magnetic field like Earth does, but somehow the iron-core dynamo that generated it must have shut down billions of years ago.
But new seismic data from NASA’s InSight lander might change our understanding of Mar’s interior, as well as alter the view of how Mars evolved and changed over time. InSight’s data revealed the presence of a molten silicate layer overlying Mars’ metallic core. Scientists say this insulating layer is like a blanket that might prevent the core from producing a global magnetic field.Continue reading “Mars Still Has Liquid Rock Near its Core”
Astronauts will face a host of obstacles when they visit the Moon again. There’s powerful radiation, wild temperature swings, and challenging gravity to deal with. There’s also dust and lots of it. Moondust was a hazard for the Apollo astronauts, and future lunar astronauts will have to contend with it, too.
What if they turn some of that dust into solid surfaces to drive on?Continue reading “Building Roads Out of Moon Dust”
On October 13th, at 10:19 AM Eastern (07:19 AM Pacific), NASA’s Psyche mission successfully launched atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket from Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This spacecraft is now on its way to rendezvous with the M-type asteroid of the same name, an object in the Main Asteroid Belt almost entirely composed of metal. This metallic asteroid is thought to be the remnant of a planetoid that lost its outer layers, leaving behind a core of iron-nickel and precious metals. By studying this object, scientists hope to learn more about the formation of rocky planets.Continue reading “NASA's Psyche Mission is off to Asteroid Psyche”
The ESA’s Gaia mission is releasing a new tranche of astronomical data. The mission has released three regular, massive hauls of data since it launched in 2013, named Gaia DR1, DR2, and DR3. The ESA is calling this one a ‘focused product release,’ and while it’s smaller than the previous three releases, it’s still impactful.Continue reading “A Huge New Gaia Data Release: More Stars, Gravitational Lenses and Asteroids”