Will We Ever Reach Another Star?

We hear about discoveries of exoplanets every day. So how long will it take us to find another planet like Earth?

There are two separate parts of your brain I would like to speak with today. First, I want to talk to the part that makes decisions on who to vote for, how much insurance you should put on your car and deals with how not paying taxes sends you to jail. We’ll call this part of your brain “Kevin”.

The rest of your brain can kick back, especially the parts that knows what kind of gas station you prefer, whether Lena Dunham is awesome or “the most awesome”, whether a certain sports team is the winningest, or believes that you can leave a casino with more money than you went in with. We will call this part “Other Kevin”, in honor of Dave Willis.

Okay Kevin, you’re up. I’m going to cut to the gut punch, Kevin. Between you and me, it is my displeasure to inform you that science fiction has ruined “Other Kevin”. Just like comic books have compromised their ability to judge the likelihood of someone acquiring heat vision, science fiction has messed up their sense of scale about interstellar travel.

But you already knew that. Not like “Other Kevin”, you’re the smart one. In the immortal words of Douglas Adams, “space is big”. But when he said that, Douglas was really understating how mind-bogglingly big space really is.

The nearest star is 4 light years away. That means that light, traveling at 300,000 kilometers per second would still need 4 YEARS to reach the nearest star. The fastest spacecraft ever launched by humans would need tens of thousands of years to make that trip.

But science fiction encourages us to think it’s possible. Kirk and Spock zip from world to world with a warp drive violating the Prime Directive right in it’s smug little Roddenberrian face. Han and Chewy can make the Kessel run in only 12 parsecs, which is confusing and requires fan theories to resolve the cognitive space-distance dissonance, and Galactica, The SDF 3, and Guild Navigators all participate in the folding of space.

And science fiction knows everything that’s about to happen, right? Like cellphones. Additionally Kevin, I know what you’re thinking and I’m not going to tear into Lucas on this. It’s too easy, and my ilk do it a little too often. Plus, I’m saving it up for Abrams. Sorry Kevin. Got a little distracted there.

The point is, science fiction is doing colossal hand waving. They’re glossing over key obstacles, like the laws of physics.

Stay with me here.This isn’t like jaywalking bylaws that “probably don’t apply to you at that very moment”, these are the physical laws of the universe that will deliver a complete junk-kicking if you try and pretend they’re not interested in crushing your little atmosphere requiring, century lifespan, conventional propulsion drive dreams.

So let’s say that we wanted to actually send a spacecraft to another star, whilst obeying the laws of physics. We’ll set the bar super low. We’re not talking about massive cruise ships filled with tourists seeking the delights of the super funzone planetoid, Itchy and Scrachylandia Prime.

David Hardy's illustration of the Daedalus Project envisioned by the British Interplanetary Society: a spacecraft to travel to the nearest stars.  (Credit: D. Hardy)
David Hardy’s illustration of the Daedalus Project envisioned by the British Interplanetary Society: a spacecraft to travel to the nearest stars. (Credit: D. Hardy)

I’m not talking about sending a crack team of power armored space marines to defend colonists from xenomorphs, or perhaps take other more thorough measures.

No, I’m talking about getting an operational teeny robotic spacecraft from Earth to Alpha Centauri. The fastest spacecraft we’ve ever launched is New Horizons. It’s currently traveling at 14 kilometres per second. It would take this peppy little probevette 100,000 years to get to the nearest star.

This is mostly due to our lack of reality shattering propulsion. Our best propellant option is an ion engine, used by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. According to much adored Ian “Handsome” O’Neill from Discovery Space, we’d be looking at 19,000 years to get to Alpha Centauri if we used an ion engine and added a gravitational assist from the Sun.

Just think of what we could do with those 81,000 years we’d be saving! I’m going to learn the dulcimer!
We can start shearing back the reality curtain and throw money and resources to chase nearby speculative propulsion tech. Things like antimatter engines, or even dropping nuclear bombs out the back of a spacecraft

The best idea in the hopper is to use solar sails, like the Planetary Society’s Lightsail.
Use the light from the Sun as well as powerful lasers to accelerate the craft.

Ion Propulsion
Ion Propulsion System Test for Deep Space 1. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

But if we’re going to start down that road, we could also send microscopic lightsail spacecraft which are much easier to accelerate. Once these miniprobes reached their target, they could link up and form a communications relay, or even robotic factories.

Sorry, I think that was my “Other Kevin” talking. So where are we at, fo’ reals?

Harold “Sonny” White, a researcher with NASA announced that they’ve been testing out a futuristic technology called an EM drive. They detected a very slight “thrust” in their equipment that might mean it could be possible to maybe push a spacecraft in space without having to expel propellent like a chemical rocket or an ion drive.

What’s that, Kevin? Yes, you should totally be skeptical. You’re right, that last bit was a salad of weasel words.

Even if this crazy drive actually works, it still needs to obey the laws of physics. You couldn’t go faster than the speed of light and you would need a remarkable source of energy to power the reactor. Also, yes, Kevin, you’re right NASA is working on a warp drive. There’s no need to yell.

NASA is also working on an actual warp drive concept known as an alcubierre drive. It would actually do what science fiction has claimed: to warp space to allow faster than light travel. But by working on it, I mean, they’ve done a lot of fancy math.

But once they get all the math done, they can just go build it right? This concept is so theoretical that physicists are still arguing whether powering an alcubierre drive would take more energy than contained within the entire Universe. Which, I think we can call an obstacle.

Oh, one more thing. “Other Kevin”, thanks for being so patient. Here’s your reward. Unicorns are real, and Kevin has been lying to you this whole time. Go get ‘em tiger. Place your bets. When do you think we’ll send our first probe towards another star? Predict the departure date in the comments below.

Curiosity Captures First Ever Asteroid Images from Mars Surface

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has caught the first image of asteroids taken from the surface of Mars on April 20, 2014. The image includes two asteroids, Ceres and Vesta. This version includes Mars’ moon Deimos in a circular, exposure-adjusted inset and square insets at left from other observations the same night. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Texas A&M
More night sky views and surface mosaics below[/caption]

The Curiosity rover has captured the first images of asteroids even taken by a Human probe from the alien surface of the Red Planet during night sky imaging.

And it’s not just one asteroid, but two asteroids caught in the same night time pointing on the Red Planet. Namely, asteroids Ceres and Vesta.

The stupendous image – seen above – was snapped by Curiosity’s high resolution Mastcam camera earlier this week on Sunday, April 20, 2014, Sol 606, whilst she was scanning about during daylight for her next drilling target at “The Kimberley” waypoint she pulled into at the start of this month.

Ceres and Vesta appear as streaks since the Mastcam image was taken as a 12 second time exposure.

“This imaging was part of an experiment checking the opacity of the atmosphere at night in Curiosity’s location on Mars, where water-ice clouds and hazes develop during this season,” said camera team member Mark Lemmon of Texas A&M University, College Station, in a statement.

“The two Martian moons were the main targets that night, but we chose a time when one of the moons was near Ceres and Vesta in the sky.”

View our “Kimberley” region photo mosiacs below to see exactly from where the six wheeled robot took the asteroid image shown above, while driving around the base of “Mount Remarkable”.

And those two asteroids are extra special because not only are they the two most massive objects in the Main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, but they are also the destinations of another superlative NASA unmanned mission – Dawn.

Curiosity Mars rover captured this panoramic view of a butte called "Mount Remarkable" and surrounding outcrops at “The Kimberley " waypoint on April 11, 2014, Sol 597. Colorized navcam photomosaic was stitched by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Curiosity Mars rover captured this panoramic view of a butte called “Mount Remarkable” and surrounding outcrops at “The Kimberley ” waypoint on April 11, 2014, Sol 597. Colorized navcam photomosaic was stitched by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The exotic Dawn probe, propelled by a stream of ions, orbited Vesta for a year in 2011 and is now approaching Ceres for an exciting orbital mission in 2015.

Ceres, the largest asteroid, is about 590 miles (950 kilometers) in diameter. Vesta is the third-largest object in the main belt and measures about 350 miles (563 kilometers) wide.

And as if Curiosity’s mouthwatering and heavenly double asteroid gaze wasn’t already spectacular enough, the tinier of Mars’ moons, Deimos, was also caught in that same image.

A trio of star trails is also seen, again due to the 12 second time exposure time.

Furthermore, Mars largest moon Phobos as well as massive planets Jupiter and Saturn were also visible that same Martian evening, albeit in a different pointing.

These celestial objects are all combined in the composite image above.

“The background is detector noise, limiting what we can see to magnitude 6 or 7, much like normal human eyesight. The two asteroids and three stars would be visible to someone of normal eyesight standing on Mars. Specks are effects of cosmic rays striking the camera’s light detector,” says NASA.

An unannotated image is seen below.

NASA's Curiosity Mars rover has caught the first image of asteroids taken from the surface of Mars. The image includes two asteroids, Ceres and Vesta.  In this unannotated version of the 12-second-exposure image, the brightness of Deimos at lower right saturates the image, making the moon appear overly large.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Texas A&M
NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has caught the first image of asteroids taken from the surface of Mars. The image includes two asteroids, Ceres and Vesta. In this unannotated version of the 12-second-exposure image, the brightness of Deimos at lower right saturates the image, making the moon appear overly large. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Texas A&M

Curiosity’s makers back on Earth are nowhere to be seen. But check out the Curiosity’s earlier photo below of the Earth and Moon from my prior article – here.

To date, Curiosity’s odometer totals 3.8 miles (6.1 kilometers) since landing inside Gale Crater on Mars in August 2012. She has taken over 143,000 images.

The sedimentary foothills of Mount Sharp, which reaches 3.4 miles (5.5 km) into the Martian sky, is the 1 ton robots ultimate destination inside Gale Crater because it holds caches of water altered minerals. Such minerals could possibly indicate locations that sustained potential Martian life forms, past or present, if they ever existed.

Martian landscape with rows of curved rock outcrops at ‘Kimberly’ in the foreground and spectacular Mount Sharp on the horizon. NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover pulled into Kimberly waypoint dominated by layered rock outcrops as likely drilling site.  This colorized navcam camera photomosaic was assembled from imagery taken on Sol 576 (Mar. 20, 2014).  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com
Martian landscape with rows of curved rock outcrops at ‘Kimberly’ in the foreground and spectacular Mount Sharp on the horizon. NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover pulled into Kimberly waypoint dominated by layered rock outcrops as likely drilling site. This colorized navcam camera photomosaic was assembled from imagery taken on Sol 576 (Mar. 20, 2014). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

Curiosity has some 4 kilometers to go to reach the base of Mount Sharp sometime later this year.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Curiosity, Opportunity, Chang’e-3, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, LADEE, MAVEN, MOM, Mars and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

You are here! – As an Evening Star in the Martian Sky. This evening-sky view taken by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity shows the Earth and Earth’s moon as seen on Jan. 31, 2014, or Sol 529 shortly after sunset at the Dingo Gap inside Gale Crater.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/TAMU
You are here! – As an Evening Star in the Martian Sky
This evening-sky view taken by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity shows the Earth and Earth’s moon as seen on Jan. 31, 2014, or Sol 529 shortly after sunset at the Dingo Gap inside Gale Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/TAMU
Mars rock rows and Mount Sharp. Martian landscape scene with rows of striated rocks in the foreground and Mount Sharp on the horizon. NASA's Curiosity Mars rover paused mid drive at the Junda outcrop to snap the component images for this navcam camera photomosaic on Sol 548 (Feb. 19, 2014) and then continued traveling southwards towards mountain base.   UHF Antenna at right. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com
Mars rock rows and Mount Sharp. Martian landscape scene with rows of striated rocks in the foreground and Mount Sharp on the horizon. NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover paused mid drive at the Junda outcrop to snap the component images for this navcam camera photomosaic on Sol 548 (Feb. 19, 2014) and then continued traveling southwards towards mountain base. UHF Antenna at right. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

Ready For Your Closeup, Ceres? NASA Spacecraft Gets Closer To Dwarf Planet

The next few years will be banner ones for learning about dwarf planets. While the high-profile New Horizons spacecraft zooms towards a Pluto date in 2015, the Dawn spacecraft is making a more stealthy (in terms of media coverage) run at Ceres, which is the smallest and closest dwarf planet to Earth.

The Dawn spacecraft, as readers likely recall, made its first port of call at fellow protoplanet Vesta. What excites scientists this time around is the likelihood of water ice on Ceres’ surface. Vesta, by contrast, was very dry.

Here’s Dawn’s agenda once it gets to Ceres in April 2015:

“Dawn will make its first full characterization of Ceres later in April, at an altitude of about 8,400 miles (13,500 kilometers) above the icy surface. Then, it will spiral down to an altitude of about 2,750 miles (4,430 kilometers), and obtain more science data in its survey science orbit. This phase will last for 22 days, and is designed to obtain a global view of Ceres with Dawn’s framing camera, and global maps with the visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR),” NASA stated.

“Dawn will then continue to spiral its way down to an altitude of about 920 miles (1,480 kilometers), and in August 2015 will begin a two-month phase known as the high-altitude mapping orbit. During this phase, the spacecraft will continue to acquire near-global maps with the VIR and framing camera at higher resolution than in the survey phase. The spacecraft will also image in ‘stereo’ to resolve the surface in 3-D.”

Dawn will then zoom down to an altitude of just 233 miles (375 kilometers) in November 2015 for three months to obtain information about elements and the dwarf planet’s gravity. Dawn will use its Gamma Ray and Neutron Detector (GRaND) to do the first part and a gravity experiment to perform the second.

Ceres. Image credit: NASA
Ceres. Image credit: NASA

To conserve fuel, Dawn will also use a “hybrid” pointing control method to keep it on track, using both reaction wheels and thrusters to stay in the right direction. This is needed because two of its four reaction wheels had “developed excessive friction” by the time Dawn departed Vesta. The hybrid method was tested for 27 hours and successfully concluded Nov. 13. You can check out more about the hybrid mode at this link.

Oh, and as a reminder of what Dawn found at Vesta, check out these Universe Today stories about it discovering hydrogen, learning about its internal structure and taking a close-up of a huge mountain.

This article has been corrected to put Dawn’s correct arrival date.

NASA: Reaches for New Heights – Greatest Hits Video

Video Caption: At NASA, we’ve been a little busy: landing on Mars, developing new human spacecraft, going to the space station, working with commercial partners, observing the Earth and the Sun, exploring our solar system and understanding our universe. And that’s not even everything.Credit: NASA

Check out this cool action packed video titled “NASA: Reaching for New Heights” – to see NASA’s ‘Greatest Hits’ from the past year

The 4 minute film is a compilation of NASA’s gamut of Robotic Science and Human Spaceflight achievements to explore and understand Planet Earth here at home and the heavens above- ranging from our Solar System and beyond to the Galaxy and the vast expanse of the Universe.

Image caption: Planets and Moons in perspective. Credit: NASA

The missions and programs featured include inspiringly beautiful imagery from : Curiosity, Landsat, Aquarius, GRACE, NuSTAR, GRAIL, Dawn at Asteroid Vesta, SDO, X-48C Amelia, Orion, SLS, Apollo, SpaceX, Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser, Boeing CST-100, Commercial Crew, Hurricane Sandy from the ISS, Robonaut and more !

And even more space exploration thrills are coming in 2013 !

Ken Kremer

IMG_3760a_SpaceX launch 22 May 2012

Image caption: SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasts off on May 22, 2012 with Dragon cargo capsule from Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., on the first commercial mission to the International Space Station. The next launch is set for March 1, 2013. Credit: Ken Kremer

Dawn’s Vestan Endeavour Exceptionally Exciting near End of Year-Long Super Science Survey

Image Caption: Divalia Fossa equatorial trough at Vesta pictured in side by side images showing apparent brightness and topography. The trough encircles most of Vesta and is located just south of the equator. It is about 10 kilometers (6 miles) wide. Rubria and Occia craters straddle Divalia Fossa. The image was snapped on Oct 16, 2011 from an altitude of 700 km (435 mi) from the HAMO mapping orbit. Image Credit: NASA/ JPL-Caltech/ UCLA/ MPS/ DLR/ IDA

“NASA’s Dawn mission to Asteroid Vesta is going exceptionally well”, Dr. Marc Rayman, the mission’s Chief Engineer, told Universe Today in an exclusive interview as the revolutionary spacecraft nears the end of its more than 1 year long super science survey orbiting the giant space rock.

“The Dawn mission is not only going better than we had expected but even better than we had hoped.”

Dawn is Earth’s first mission ever to orbit and explore Vesta up close.

“We have acquired so much more data than we had planned even in late 2011! We have conducted a tremendous exploration of Vesta – the second most massive body between Mars and Jupiter, a giant of the main asteroid belt.”

“Now we are in our second high altitude mapping orbit (HAMO2), which is the final intensive campaign of the Vesta mission,” Rayman told me.

Image Caption: Dawn Orbiting Vesta above the “Snowman” craters. This artist’s concept shows NASA’s Dawn spacecraft orbiting the giant asteroid Vesta above the Snowman craters. The depiction of Vesta is based on images obtained by Dawn’s framing cameras. Dawn is an international collaboration of the US, Germany and Italy. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Indeed Dawn’s science and maneuvering endeavour’s at Vesta have proceeded so flawlessly that NASA has granted the science team a bonus of 40 days additional time in orbit split between the lower and higher science orbits known as LAMO and HAMO or the Low Altitude Mapping Orbit and the High Altitude Mapping Orbit respectively.

“Our original Vesta departure date was July 17, and now it is about August 26.” Rayman explained.

The bonus time at LAMO has already been completed. Now the team is about to begin the bonus time at HAMO – consisting of two additional mapping cycles beyond the four originally planned.

Each mapping cycle in HAMO2 consists of 10 orbits. Each orbit is about 12.5 hours.

“On July 14, we will complete mapping cycle 4 and begin 5 (of 6). On July 25 we will leave HAMO2 and escape from orbit on August 26. We will stop thrusting several times before escape to take more neat pictures, mostly of the northern hemisphere,” Rayman told me.

“As Dawn revolves, Vesta rotates on its axis beneath it, turning once every 5.3 hours.”

When Dawn arrived in orbit at Vesta in July 2011 the northern polar region was in darkness as the southern hemisphere basked in summer’s glow. Now as Dawn departs Vesta in August, virtually all of the previously unseen and unphotographed northern polar region is illuminated and will be mapped in exquisite detail.

Coincidentally on July 13/14 as HAMO2 Cycle 4 ends, I’ll be presenting a free public lecture about Dawn and NASA’s Planetary and Human Spaceflight programs at the Adirondack Public Observatory.

Image Caption: Asteroid Vesta and Mysterious Equatorial Grooves – from Dawn Orbiter. This full view of the giant asteroid Vesta was taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft on July 24, 2011, at a distance of 3,200 miles (5,200 kilometers). This view shows impact craters of various sizes and mysterious grooves parallel to the equator. The resolution of this image is about 500 meters per pixel. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Why has Dawn been granted an extended mission ?

“Dawn has gone so well that we had consumed not even one day of our 40 days of operations margin,” Rayman stated .

“That allowed us to spend more time in LAMO. We had had some unexpected events to be sure, but we managed to deal with all of them so expeditiously that the entire margin remained intact. Then we received the (entirely unrelated) 40 day extension, which allowed us to leave Vesta later. That came about because of our being able to shorten the flight from Vesta to Ceres, so we could still reach Ceres on schedule in 2015.”

“That 40 days allowed us to spend still ~ 30 more days in LAMO and increase HAMO2 by 10 days to a total of six cycles. We got still more time by finding ways to make the trip from HAMO2 to escape a little more efficiently, and that’s what allowed HAMO2 to be even longer, with the additional eight days of VIR-only observations I described in my most recent Dawn Journal.”

“The summary is that every investigation has been more productive than we could have imagined, and because the exploration of Vesta has gone so well, we have been able to apply our unused margin to get even more out of the mission. It is very very gratifying and exciting.”

So we have a few more weeks to enjoy the wondrous sights of Vesta before Dawn fires up her revolutionary ion thrusters to escape the gravitational tug of Vesta and head off to the dwarf planet Ceres, the largest asteroid in the main belt of our Solar System – and which some have speculated may hold vast caches of water and perhaps even liquid oceans suitable for sustaining life.

Ken Kremer

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July 13/14: Free Public Lectures about NASA’s Mars, Vesta and Planetary Exploration, the Space Shuttle, SpaceX , Orion and more by Ken Kremer at the Adirondack Public Observatory in Tupper Lake, NY.

Dawn gets Big Science Boost at Best Vesta Mapping Altitude

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NASA’s Dawn mission is getting a whopping boost in science observing time at the closest orbit around Asteroid Vesta as the probe passes the midway point of its 1 year long survey of the colossal space rock. And the team informs Universe Today that the data so far have surpassed all expectations and they are very excited !

Dawn’s bonus study time amounts to an additional 40 days circling Vesta at the highest resolution altitude for scientific measurements. That translates to a more than 50 percent increase beyond the originally planned length of 70 days at what is dubbed the Low Altitude Mapping Orbit, or LAMO.

“We are truly thrilled to be able to spend more time observing Vesta from low altitude,” Dr. Marc Rayman told Universe Today in an exclusive interview. Rayman is Dawn’s Engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.

“It is very exciting indeed to obtain such a close-up look at a world that even a year ago was still just a fuzzy blob.”

The big extension for a once-in-a-lifetime shot at up close science was all enabled owing to the hard work of the international science team in diligently handling any anomalies along the pathway through interplanetary space and since Dawn achieved orbit in July 2011, as well as to the innovative engineering of the spacecraft’s design and its revolutionary ion propulsion system.

“This is a reflection of how well all of our work at Vesta has gone from the beginning of the approach phase in May 2011,” Rayman told me.

Simulated view of Vesta from Dawn in LAMO, low altitude mapping orbit - March, 6 2012
Credit: Gregory J. Whiffen, JPL

Dawn’s initially projected 10 week long science campaign at LAMO began on Dec. 12, 2011 at an average distance of 210 kilometers (130 miles) from the protoplanet and was expected to conclude on Feb. 20, 2012 under the original timeline. Thereafter it would start spiraling back out to the High Altitude Mapping Orbit, known as HAMO, approximately 680 kilometers above the surface.

“With the additional 40 days it means we are now scheduled to leave LAMO on April 4. That’s when we begin ion thrusting for the transfer to HAMO2,” Rayman stated.

And the observations to date at LAMO have already vastly surpassed all hopes – using all three of the onboard science instruments provided by the US, Germany and Italy.

“Dawn’s productivity certainly is exceeding what we had expected,” exclaimed Rayman.

“We have acquired more than 7500 LAMO pictures from the Framing Camera and more than 1 million LAMO VIR (Visible and Infrared) spectra which afford scientists a much more detailed view of Vesta than had been planned with the survey orbit and the high altitude mapping orbit (HAMO). It would have been really neat just to have acquired even only a few of these close-up observations, but we have a great bounty!”

“Roughly around half of Vesta’s surface has been imaged at LAMO.”

Dawn mosaic of Visible and Infrared spectrometer (VIR) data of Vesta
This mosaic shows the location of the data acquired by VIR (visible and infrared spectrometer) during the HAMO (high-altitude mapping orbit) phase of the Dawn mission from August to October 2011. Dawn is now making the same observations at the now extended LAMO (low-altitude mapping orbit) phase of the Dawn mission from December 2011 to April 2012. VIR can image Vesta in a number of different wavelengths of light, ranging from the visible to the infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum. This mosaic shows the images taken at a wavelength of 550 nanometers, which is in the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum. During HAMO VIR obtained more than 4.6 million spectra of Vesta. It is clear from this image that the VIR observations are widely distributed across Vesta, which results in a global view of the spectral properties of Vesta’s surface. This image shows Vesta’s southern hemisphere (lower part of the image) and equatorial regions (upper part of the image). NASA’s Dawn spacecraft obtained these VIR images with its visible and infrared spectrometer in September and October 2011. The distance to the surface of Vesta is around 700 kilometers (435 miles) and the average image resolution is 170 meters per pixel. Credit: NASA/ JPL-Caltech/ UCLA/ ASI/ INAF/ IAPS

The bonus time at LAMO will now be effectively used to help fill in the gaps in surface coverage utilizing all 3 science instruments. Therefore perhaps an additional 20% to 25% extra territory will be imaged at the highest possible resolution. Some of this will surely amount to enlarged new coverage and some will be overlapping with prior terrain, which also has enormous research benefits.

“There is real value even in seeing the same part of the surface multiple times, because the illumination may be different. In addition, it helps for building up stereo,” said Rayman.

Researchers will deduce further critical facts about Vesta’s topography, composition, interior, gravity and geologic features with the supplemental measurements.

Successive formation of impact craters on Vesta
This Dawn FC (framing camera) image shows two overlapping impact craters and was taken on Dec. 18,2011 during the LAMO (low-altitude mapping orbit) phase of the mission. The large crater is roughly 20 kilometers (12 miles) in diameter and the smaller crater is roughly 6 kilometers (4 miles) in diameter. The rims of the craters are both reasonably fresh but the larger crater must be older because the smaller crater cuts across the larger crater’s rim. As the smaller crater formed it destroyed a part of the rim of the pre-existing, larger crater. The larger crater’s interior is more densely cratered than the smaller crater, which also suggests that is it older. In the bottom of the image there is some material slumping from rim of the larger crater towards its center. This image with its framing camera on Dec. 18, 2011. This image was taken through the camera’s clear filter. The distance to the surface of Vesta is 260 kilometers (162 miles) and the image has a resolution of about 22 meters (82 feet) per pixel. Credit: NASA/ JPL-Caltech/ UCLA/ MPS/ DLR/ IDA

The foremost science goals at LAMO are collection of gamma ray and neutron measurements with the GRaND instrument – which focuses on determining the elemental abundances of Vesta – and collection of information about the structure of the gravitational field. Since GRaND can only operate effectively at low orbit, the extended duration at LAMO takes on further significance.

“Our focus is on acquiring the highest priority science. The pointing of the spacecraft is determined by our primary scientific objectives of collecting GRaND and gravity measurements.”

As Dawn continues orbiting every 4.3 hours around Vesta during LAMO, GRaND is recording measurements of the subatomic particles that emanate from the surface as a result of the continuous bombardment of cosmic rays and reveals the signatures of the elements down to a depth of about 1 meter.

“You can think of GRaND as taking a picture of Vesta but in extremely faint light. That is, the nuclear emissions it detects are extremely weak. So our long time in LAMO is devoted to making a very, very long exposure, albeit in gamma rays and neutrons and not in visible light,” explained Rayman.

Now with the prolonged mission at LAMO the team can gather even more data, amounting to thousands and thousands more pictures, hundreds of thousands of more VIR spectra and ultra long exposures by GRaND.

“HAMO investigations have already produced global coverage of Vesta’s gravity field,” said Sami Asmar, a Dawn co-investigator from JPL. Extended investigations at LAMO will likewise vastly improve the results from the gravity experiment.

Dawn Spacecraft Current Location and Trajectory - March, 6 2012. Credit: Gregory J. Whiffen, JPL

“We always carried 40 days of “margin,” said Rayman, “but no one who was knowledgeable about the myriad challenges of exploring this uncharted world expected we would be able to accomplish all the complicated activities before LAMO without needing to consume some of that margin. So although we recognized that we might get to spend some additional time in LAMO, we certainly did not anticipate it would be so much.”

“As it turned out, although we did have surprises the operations team managed to recover from all of them without using any of those 40 days.”

“This is a wonderful bonus for science,” Rayman concluded.

“We remain on schedule to depart Vesta in July 2012, as planned for the past several years.”

Dawn’s next target is Ceres, the largest asteroid in the main Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter

Asteroid Vesta Floats in Space in High Resolution 3-D

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The giant Asteroid Vesta literally floats in space in a new high resolution 3-D image of the battered bodies Eastern Hemisphere taken by NASA’s Dawn Asteroid Orbiter.

Haul out your red-cyan 3-D anaglyph glasses and lets go whirling around Vesta and sledding down mountains to greet the alien Snowman! The sights are fabulous !

The Dawn imaging group based at the German Aerospace Center (DLR), in Berlin, Germany and led by team member Ralf Jaumann has released a trio of new high resolution 3-D images that are the most vivid anaglyphs yet published by the international science team.

The lead anaglyph shows the highly varied topography of the Eastern Hemisphere of Vesta and was taken during the final approach phase as Dawn was about 5,200 kilometers (3,200 miles) away and preparing to achieve orbit in July 2011.

The heavily cratered northern region is at top and is only partially illuminated because of Vesta’s tilted angle to the Sun at that time of year. Younger craters are overlain onto many older and more degraded craters. The equatorial region is dominated by the mysterious troughs which encircle most of Vesta and may have formed as a result of a gargantuan gong, eons ago.

The southern hemisphere exhibits fewer craters than in the northern hemisphere. Look closely at the bottom left and you’ll see the huge central mountain complex of the Rheasilvia impact basin visibly protruding out from Vesta’s south polar region.

This next 3-D image shows a close-up of the South Pole Mountain at the center of the Rheasilvia Impact basin otherwise known as the “Mount Everest of Vesta”.

The Mount Everest of Vesta in 3-D
This anaglyph shows the central complex and huge mountain in Vesta’s Rheasilvia impact basin at the South Pole. Does water ice lurk beneath the South Pole ?
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA.

The central complex is approximately 200 kilometers (120 miles) in diameter and is approximately 20 kilometers (12 miles) tall and is therefore about two and a half times taller than Earth’s Mount Everest!

Be sure to take a long look inside the deep craters and hummocky terrain surrounding “Mount Everest”.

A recent study concludes that, in theory, Vesta’s interior is cold enough for water ice to lurk beneath the North and South poles.

Finally lets gaze at the trio of craters that make up the “Snowman” in the 3-D image snapped in August 2011 as Dawn was orbiting at about 2,700 kilometers (1,700 miles) altitude. The three craters are named Minucia, Marcia and Calpurnia from top to bottom. Their diameters respectively are; 24 kilometers (15 miles), 53 kilometers (33 miles) and 63 kilometers (40 miles).

3-D image of Vesta’s “Snowman” craters
The three craters are named Minucia, Marcia and Calpurnia from top to bottom. They are 24 kilometers (15 miles), 53 kilometers (33 miles) and 63 kilometers (40 miles) in diameter, respectively. Image resolution is about 250 meters (820 feet) per pixel. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA.

It is likely that Marcia and Calpurnia formed from the impact of a binary asteroid and that Minucia formed in a later impact. The smooth region around the craters is the ejecta blanket.

Dawn Orbiting Vesta above the “Snowman” craters
This artist's concept shows NASA's Dawn spacecraft orbiting the giant asteroid Vesta above the Snowman craters. The depiction of Vesta is based on images obtained by Dawn's framing cameras. Dawn is an international collaboration of the US, Germany and Italy. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Vesta is the second most massive asteroid in the main Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter. It is 330 miles (530 km) in diameter.

Dawn is the first spacecraft from Earth to visit Vesta. It achieved orbit in July 2011 for a year long mission. Dawn will fire up its ion propulsion thrusters in July 2012 to spiral out of orbit and sail to Ceres, the biggest asteroid of them all !

Vesta and Ceres are also considered to be protoplanets.

Does Water Ice Lurk Beneath the Poles of Vesta ?

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The mysterious asteroid Vesta may well have more surprises in store. Despite past observations that Vesta would be nearly bone dry, newly published research indicates that about half of the giant asteroid is sufficiently cold and dark enough that water ice could theoretically exist below the battered surface.

Scientists working at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and the University of Maryland have derived the first models of Vesta’s average global temperatures and illumination by the Sun based on data obtained from the Hubble Space Telescope.

“Near the north and south poles, the conditions appear to be favorable for water ice to exist beneath the surface,” says Timothy Stubbs of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. The research by Timothy Stubbs and Yongli Wang, of the Goddard Planetary Heliophysics Institute at the University of Maryland, was published in the January 2012 issue of the journal Icarus.

If any water lurks beneath Vesta, it would most likely exist at least 10 feet (3 meters) below the North and South poles because the models predict that the poles are the coldest regions on the giant asteroid and the equatorial regions are too warm.

Global Map of Average Surface Temperature of Vesta
This global map of average surface temperature shows the warmer equatorial zone of the giant asteroid Vesta is likely too warm to sustain water ice below the surface. But roughly half of Vesta is so cold and receives so little sunlight on average that water ice could have survived there for billions of years. The dividing lines (solid gray) are found at about 27 degrees north latitude and 27 degrees south latitude. This map, with temperatures given in kelvins, comes from the first published models of the average global temperature and illumination conditions on Vesta. Credit: NASA/GSFC/UMBC

If proven, the existence of water ice at Vesta would have vast implications for the formation and evolution of the tiny body and upend current theories.

The surface of Vesta is not cold enough for ice to survive all the time because unlike the Moon, it probably does not have any significant permanently shadowed craters where water ice could stay frozen on the surface indefinitely.

Even the huge 300 mile diameter (480-kilometer) crater at the South Pole is not a good candidate for water ice because Vesta is tilted 27 degrees on its axis, a bit more than Earth’s tilt of 23 degrees.

By contrast, the Moon is only tilted 1.5 degrees and possesses many permanently shadowed craters. NASA’s LCROSS impact mission proved that water ice exists inside permanently shadowed lunar craters.

New modeling shows that, under present conditions, Vesta's polar regions are cold enough (less than about 145 kelvins) to sustain water ice for billions of years, as this map of average surface temperature around the asteroid's south pole indicates.

The models predict that the average annual temperature around Vesta’s poles is below minus 200 degrees Fahrenheit (145 kelvins). Water ice is not stable above that temperature in the top 10 feet of Vestan soil, or regolith.

At the equator and in a band stretching to about 27 degrees north and south in latitude, the average annual temperature is about minus 190 degrees Fahrenheit (145 kelvins), which is too high for the ice to survive.

“On average, it’s colder at Vesta’s poles than near its equator, so in that sense, they are good places to sustain water ice,” says Stubbs in a NASA statement. “But they also see sunlight for long periods of time during the summer seasons, which isn’t so good for sustaining ice. So if water ice exists in those regions, it may be buried beneath a relatively deep layer of dry regolith.”

Vesta is the second most massive asteroid in the main Asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

NASA’s Dawn Asteroid Orbiter is the very first mission to Vesta and achieved orbit in July 2011 for a 1 year long mission.

Dawn is currently circling Vesta at its lowest planned orbit. The three science instruments are snapping pictures and the spectrometers are collecting data on the elemental and mineralogical composition of Vesta.

The onboard GRaND spectrometer in particular could shed light on the question of whether water ice exists at Vesta.

So far no water has been detected, but the best data is yet to come.

In July 2012, Dawn fires up its ion thrusters and spirals out of orbit to begin the journey to Ceres, the largest asteroid of them all.

Ceres is believed to harbor huge caches of water, either as ice or in the form of oceans and is a potential habitat for life.

2011: Top Stories from the Best Year Ever for NASA Planetary Science!

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A year ago, 2011 was proclaimed as the “Year of the Solar System” by NASA’s Planetary Science division. And what a year of excitement it was indeed for the planetary science community, amateur astronomers and the general public alike !

NASA successfully delivered astounding results on all fronts – On the Story of How We Came to Be.

“2011 was definitely the best year ever for NASA Planetary Science!” said Jim Green in an exclusive interview with Universe Today. Green is the Director of Planetary Science for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA HQ. “The Search for Life is a significant priority for NASA.”

This past year was without doubt simply breathtaking in scope in terms of new missions, new discoveries and extraordinary technical achievements. The comprehensive list of celestial targets investigated in 2011 spanned virtually every type of object in our solar system – from the innermost planet to the outermost reaches nearly touching interplanetary space.

There was even a stunningly evocative picture showing “All of Humanity” – especially appropriate now in this Holiday season !

You and all of Humanity are here !
-- Earth & Moon Portrait by Juno from 6 Million miles away --
First Photo transmitted from Jupiter Bound Juno shows Earth (on the left) and the Moon (on the right). Taken on Aug. 26, 2011 when spacecraft was about 6 million miles (9.66 million kilometers) away from Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Three brand new missions were launched and ongoing missions orbited a planet and an asteroid and flew past a comet.

“NASA has never had the pace of so many planetary launches in such a short time,” said Green.

And three missions here were awarded ‘Best of 2011’ for innovation !

Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), Dawn and MESSENGER named “Best of What’s New” in 2011 by Popular Science magazine. 3 NASA Planetary Science missions received the innovation award for 2011 from Popular Science magazine. Artist concept shows mosaic of MESSENGER, Mars Science Laboratory and Dawn missions. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Here’s the Top NASA Planetary Science Stories of 2011 – ‘The Year of the Solar System’ – in chronological order

1. Stardust-NExT Fly By of Comet Tempel 1

Starting from the first moments of 2011 at the dawn of Jan. 1, hopes were already running high for planetary scientists and engineers busily engaged in setting up a romantic celestial date in space between a volatile icy comet and an aging, thrusting probe on Valentine’s Day.

The comet chasing Stardust-Next spacecraft successfully zoomed past Comet Tempel 1 on Feb. 14 at 10.9 km/sec (24,000 MPH) after flying over 6 Billion kilometers (3.5 Billion mi).

6 Views of Comet Tempel 1 and Deep Impact crater during Stardust-NExT flyby on Feb. 14, 2011
Arrows show location of man-made crater created in 2005 by NASA’s prior Deep Impact comet mission and newly imaged as Stardust-NExT zoomed past comet in 2011. The images progress in time during closest approach to comet beginning at upper left and moving clockwise to lower left. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Maryland. Post process and annotations by Marco Di Lorenzo & Kenneth Kremer

The craft approached within 178 km (111mi) and snapped 72 astonishingly detailed high resolution science images over barely 8 minutes. It also fulfilled the teams highest hopes by photographing the human-made crater created on Tempel 1 in 2005 by a cosmic collision with a penetrator hurled by NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft. The probe previously flew by Comet Wild 2 in 2004 and returned cometary coma particles to Earth in 2006

Tempel 1 is the first comet to be visited by two spaceships from Earth and provided the first-ever opportunity to compare observations on two successive passages around the Sun.

Don Brownlee, the original Principal Investigator, summarized the results for Universe Today; “A great bonus of the mission was the ability to flyby two comets and take images and measurements. The wonderfully successful flyby of Comet Tempel 1 was a great cap to the 12 year mission and provided a great deal of new information to study the diversity among comets.”

“The new images of Tempel showed features that form a link between seemingly disparate surface features of the 4 comets imaged by spacecraft. Combining data on the same comet from the Deep Impact and Stardust missions has provided important new insights in to how comet surfaces evolve over time and how they release gas and dust into space”.

2. MESSENGER at Mercury

On March 18, the Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry, and Ranging, or MESSENGER, spacecraft became the first spacecraft inserted into orbit around Mercury, the innermost planet.

So far MESSENGER has completed 1 solar day – 176 Earth days- circling above Mercury. The probe has collected a treasure trove of new data from the seven instruments onboard yielding a scientific bonanza; these include global imagery of most of the surface, measurements of the planet’s surface chemical composition, topographic evidence for significant amounts of water ice, magnetic field and interactions with the solar wind.

“MESSENGER discovered that Mercury has an enormous core, larger than Earth’s. We are trying to understand why that is and why Mercury’s density is similar to Earth’s,” Jim Green explained to Universe Today.

The First Solar Day
After its first Mercury solar day (176 Earth days) in orbit, MESSENGER has nearly completed two of its main global imaging campaigns: a monochrome map at 250 m/pixel and an eight-color, 1-km/pixel color map. Small gaps will be filled in during the next solar day. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

“The primary mission lasts 2 solar days, equivalent to 4 Mercury years.”

“NASA has granted a 1 year mission extension, for a total of 8 Mercury years. This will allow the team to understand the environment at Mercury during Solar Maximum for the first time. All prior spacecraft observations were closer to solar minimum,” said Green.

MESSENGER was launched in 2004 and the goal is to produce the first global scientific observations of Mercury and piece together the puzzle of how Mercury fits in with the origin and evolution of our solar system.

NASA’s Mariner 10 was the only previous robotic probe to explore Mercury, during three flyby’s back in the mid-1970’s early in the space age.

3. Dawn Asteroid Orbiter

The Dawn spacecraft achieved orbit around the giant asteroid Vesta in July 2011 after a four year interplanetary cruise and began transmitting the history making first ever close-up observations of the mysteriously diverse and alien world that is nothing short of a ‘Space Spectacular’.

“We do not have a good analog to Vesta anywhere else in the Solar System,” Chris Russell said to Universe Today. Russell, from UCLA, is the scientific Principal Investigator for Dawn.

Before Dawn, Vesta was just another fuzzy blob in the most powerful telescopes. Dawn has completely unveiled Vesta as a remarkably dichotomous, heavily battered and pockmarked world that’s littered with thousands of craters, mountains and landslides and ringed by mystifying grooves and troughs. It will unlock details about the elemental abundances, chemical composition and interior structure of this marvelously intriguing body.

Cataclysmic collisions eons ago excavated Vesta so it lacks a south pole. Dawn discovered that what unexpectedly remains is an enormous mountain some 16 miles (25 kilometers) high, twice the height of Mt. Everest.

Dawn is now about midway through its 1 year mission at Vesta which ends in July 2012 with a departure for Ceres, the largest asteroid. So far the framing cameras have snapped more than 10,000 never-before-seen images.

“What can be more exciting than to explore an alien world that until recently was virtually unknown!. ” Dr. Marc Rayman said to Universe Today. Rayman is Dawn’s Chief Engineer from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.

“Dawn is NASA at its best: ambitious, exciting, innovative, and productive.”

4. Juno Jupiter Orbiter

The solar powered Juno spacecraft was launched on Aug. 5 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, to embark on a five year, 2.8 billion kilometer (1.7 Billion mi) trek to Jupiter, our solar system’s largest planet. It was the first of three NASA planetary science liftoffs scheduled in 2011.

Juno Jupiter Orbiter soars skyward to Jupiter on Aug. 5, 2011 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer

Juno’s goal is to map to the depths of the planets interior and elucidate the ingredients of Jupiter’s genesis hidden deep inside. These measurements will help answer how Jupiter’s birth and evolution applies to the formation of the other eight planets.

The 4 ton spacecraft will arrive at the gas giant in July 2016 and fire its braking rockets to go into a polar orbit and circle the planet 33 times over about one year.

The suite of nine instruments will scan the gas giant to find out more about the planets origins, interior structure and atmosphere, measure the amount of water and ammonia, observe the aurora, map the intense magnetic field and search for the existence of a solid planetary core.

“Jupiter is the Rosetta Stone of our solar system,” said Scott Bolton, Juno’s principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “It is by far the oldest planet, contains more material than all the other planets, asteroids and comets combined and carries deep inside it the story of not only the solar system but of us. Juno is going there as our emissary — to interpret what Jupiter has to say.”

5. Opportunity reaches Endeavour Crater on Mars

The long lived Opportunity rover finally arrived at the rim of the vast 14 mile (22 kilometer) wide Endeavour Crater in mid-August 2011 following an epic three year trek across treacherous dune fields – a feat once thought unimaginable. All told, Opportunity has driven more than 34 km ( 21 mi) since landing on the Red Planet way back in 2004 for a mere 90 sol mission.

Endeavour Crater Panorama from Opportunity Mars Rover in August 2011
Opportunity arrived at the rim of Endeavour on Sol 2681, August 9, 2011 after a three year trek. The robot photographed segments of the huge craters eroded rim in this panoramic vista. Endeavour Crater is 14 miles (22 kilometers) in diameter. Mosaic Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Kenneth Kremer

In November, the rover discovered the most scientifically compelling evidence yet for the flow of liquid water on ancient Mars in the form of a water related mineral vein at a spot dubbed “Homestake” along an eroded ridge of Endeavour’s rim.

Read my story about the Homestake discovery here, along with our panoramic mosaic showing the location – created by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo and published by Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) on 12 Dec. 2011.

Watch for my upcoming story detailing Opportunity’s accomplishments in 2011.

6. GRAIL Moon Mappers

The Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory, or GRAIL mission is comprised of twin spacecraft tasked to map the moon’s gravity and study the structure of the lunar interior from crust to core.

Twin GRAIL Probes GO for Lunar Orbit Insertion on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day
GRAIL spacecraft will map the moon's gravity field and interior composition. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The dynamic duo lifted off from Cape Canaveral on September 10, 2011 atop the last Delta II rocket that will likely soar to space from Florida. After a three month voyage of more than 2.5 million miles (4 million kilometers) since blastoff, the two mirror image GRAIL spacecraft dubbed Grail-A and GRAIL-B are sailing on a trajectory placing them on a course over the Moon’s south pole on New Year’s weekend.

Each spacecraft will fire the braking rockets for about 40 minutes for insertion into Lunar Orbit about 25 hours apart on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.

Engineers will then gradually lower the satellites to a near-polar near-circular orbital altitude of about 34 miles (55 kilometers).

The spacecraft will fly in tandem and the 82 day science phase will begin in March 2012.

“GRAIL is a Journey to the Center of the Moon”, says Maria Zuber, GRAIL principal investigator from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “GRAIL will rewrite the book on the formation of the moon and the beginning of us.”

“By globally mapping the moon’s gravity field to high precision scientists can deduce information about the interior structure, density and composition of the lunar interior. We’ll evaluate whether there even is a solid or liquid core or a mixture and advance the understanding of the thermal evolution of the moon and the solar system,” explained co-investigator Sami Asmar to Universe Today. Asmar is from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)

7. Curiosity Mars Rover

The Curiosity Mars Science Lab (MSL) rover soared skywards on Nov. 26, the last of 2011’s three planetary science missions. Curiosity is the newest, largest and most technologically sophisticated robotic surveyor that NASA has ever assembled.

“MSL packs the most bang for the buck yet sent to Mars.” John Grotzinger, the Mars Science Laboratory Project Scientist of the California Institute of Technology, told Universe Today.

The three meter long robot is the first astrobiology mission since the Viking landers in the 1970’s and specifically tasked to hunt for the ‘Ingredients of Life’ on Mars – the most Earth-like planet in our Solar System.


Video caption: Action packed animation depicts sequences of Curiosity departing Earth, the nail biting terror of the never before used entry, descent and landing on the Martian surface and then looking for signs of life at Gale Crater during her minimum two year expedition across hitherto unseen and unexplored Martian landscapes, mountains and craters. Credit: NASA

Curiosity will gather and analyze samples of Martian dirt in pursuit of the tell-tale signatures of life in the form of organic molecules – the carbon based building blocks of life as we know it.

NASA is targeting Curiosity to a pinpoint touch down inside the 154 km (96 mile) wide Gale Crater on Aug. 6, 2012. The crater exhibits exposures of phyllosilicates and other minerals that may have preserved evidence of ancient or extant Martian life and is dominated by a towering 3 mile (5 km) high mountain.

“10 science instruments are all aimed at a mountain whose stratigraphic layering records the major breakpoints in the history of Mars’ environments over likely hundreds of millions of years, including those that may have been habitable for life,” Grotzinger told me.

Titan Upfront
The colorful globe of Saturn's largest moon, Titan, passes in front of the planet and its rings in this true color snapshot from NASA's Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory Rover and Ken Kremer - inside the Cleanroom at the Kennedy Space Center. Last View of Curiosity just prior to folding and encapsulation for launch. Credit: Ken Kremer

This past year Ken was incredibly fortunate to witness the ongoing efforts of many of these magnificent endeavors.

NASA’s Dawn Orbiter snaps Best Ever Images of Vesta

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NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has swooped down to the closest orbit above the monster asteroid Vesta that the craft’s cameras and spectrometers will ever glimpse and the probe has begun transmitting these highest resolution pictures to anxiously waiting scientists back on Earth.

Dawn arrived at its Low Altitude Mapping Orbit, known as LAMO, on Dec. 12, 2011 and will continue circling scarcely 130 miles (210 kilometers) above Vesta for at least the next 10 weeks. Each orbit takes about 4.3 hours.

NASA has now released the first batch of crisp new close-ups images taken by the Framing Camera on Dec. 13 showing the stippled and lumpy surface in an exquisitely fine detail never seen before.

The photo montage below shows side by side views of the same portion of the Vestan surface at ever increasing resolution and clarity from ever lower altitudes.

Closer and Closer to the Vesta Surface
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has spiraled closer and closer to the surface of the giant asteroid Vesta since arriving in mid-2011. The two images on the left represent an identical area, first observed during Dawn's survey orbit (far left image). The picture in the center is from Dawn's high-altitude mapping orbit (HAMO) from an altitude of about 430 miles (700 km) with about 230 feet (70 meters-per-pixel) resolution. The image at right was obtained on Dec. 13 from the low altitude mapping orbit (LAMO) at an altitude of 124 miles (199 km) above the surface and has a resolution of 75 feet (23 m) per pixel. It shows small impact craters or slumping at the steep-flanked mountain in the image center that can be identified in the two images to the left. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

The high resolution image gallery reveals fine scale highlights such as multitudes of small craters, grooves and lineaments, landslides and slumping, ejecta from past colossal impacts, and small outcrops of bright and dark materials.

The science team, led by Principal Investigator Prof Chris Russell of UCLA, believes that Vesta is actually more like a planet than an asteroid based on the data obtained thus far.

Vesta is the smallest terrestrial planet in our Solar System”, Russell told Universe Today. “We do not have a good analog to Vesta anywhere else in the Solar System.”

The primary science objectives at the LAMO orbit are to measure the elemental abundances on the surface of Vesta with the US built gamma ray and neutron detector (GRaND) and to probe the interior structure of the asteroid by measuring the gravity field.

Vesta is a proto-planet formed just a few million years after the birth of the solar system whose evolution into a larger planet was stopped cold by the massive gravitational influence of the planet Jupiter.

Scientists are plowing through thousands of images and millions of spectral measurements to glean clues about the origin and evolution of the solar system that have been preserved on the hitherto unexplored world.

Buried Craters on Vesta
This Dec. 13 image from Dawn spacecraft in its low altitude mapping orbit shows many buried craters located within the equatorial trough region of Vesta. This area bears traces of the material thrown out by the impact that created the Rheasilvia basin in the asteroid’s south polar region. Lineated features are visible in a variety of shapes and sizes from an altitude of 117 miles (189 km) over an area of 11 mi x 11 mi (18 km x 18 km). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

“Vesta is a transitional body between a small asteroid and a planet and is unique in many ways,” says mission scientist Vishnu Reddy of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany. “Vesta is unlike any other asteroid we have visited so far.”

After completing the LAMO measurements, Dawn will again spiral back to a higher altitude for further data gathering especially at the unseen North Pole which is in darkness now.

Dawn will continue orbiting Vesta until July 2012 when it will fire up its ion propulsion system and depart for Ceres, the largest body in the main Asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

“What can be more exciting than to explore an alien world that until recently was virtually unknown!” Dr. Marc Rayman told Universe Today. Rayman is Dawn’s Chief Engineer from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.

Equatorial Trough in Dark and Bright on Vesta
This image was one of the first obtained by Dawn in its low altitude mapping orbit and shows a part of one of the long troughs at the equator of Vesta. Credit: NASA/ JPL-Caltech/ UCLA/ MPS/ DLR/ IDA

“Dawn continues to gather gamma ray spectra and neutron spectra,” Rayman reports. “The bonus imaging at LAMO is yielding pictures more than three times better than those acquired in the high altitude mapping orbit (HAMO). Every week at this low altitude, Dawn will use its ion propulsion system to fine tune its orbit. The first of these weekly orbit adjustments was performed on December 17.”

The framing cameras eere built by the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany.

A treasure trove of spectacular Vesta close-ups are streaming at this moment to the home planet and we’ll have many more goodies to show.

Read continuing features about Dawn by Ken Kremer starting here:
Holiday Greetings from an Alien Snowman on Vesta
Dawn swoops to lowest orbit around Vesta – Unveiling Spectacular Alien World
Rainbow of Colors Reveal Asteroid Vesta as More Like a Planet
Vrooming over Vivid Vestan Vistas in Vibrant 3 D – Video
NASA Planetary Science Trio Honored as ‘Best of What’s New’ in 2011- Curiosity/Dawn/MESSENGER
Dawn Discovers 2nd Giant South Pole Impact Basin at Strikingly Dichotomous Vesta
Amazing New View of the Mt. Everest of Vesta
Dramatic 3 D Imagery Showcases Vesta’s Pockmarked, Mountainous and Groovy Terrain