Venus, aka. Earth’s “Sister Planet,” has always been shrouded in mystery for astronomers. Despite being planet Earth’s closest neighbor, scientists remained ignorant of what Venus’ surface even looked like for well into the 20th century, thanks to its incredibly dense and opaque atmosphere. Even in the age of robotic space exploration, its surface has been all but inaccessible to probes and landers.
And so the mysteries of Venus have endured, not the least of which has to do with some of its most basic characteristics – like its internal mass distribution and variations in the length of a day. Thanks to observations conducted by a team led from UCLA, who repeatedly bounced radar off the planet’s surface for the past 15 years, scientists now know the precise length of a day on Venus, the tilt of its axis, and the size of its core.
It’s no secret that humanity is poised to embark on a renewed era of space exploration. In addition to new frontiers in astronomical and cosmological research, crewed missions are also planned for the coming decades that will send astronauts back to the Moon and to Mars for the first time. Looking even further, there are also ideas for interstellar missions like Breakthrough Starshot and Project Dragonfly and NASA’s Starlight.
These mission concepts entail pairing a nanocraft with a lightsail, which would then accelerated by a directed-energy array (lasers) to achieve a fraction of the speed of light (aka. relativistic velocity). Naturally, this raises a number of technical and engineering challenges, not the least of which is communications. In a recent study, a team of scientists sought to address that very issue and considered various methods that might be used.
India thereby joins an elite club of only three other entities who have launched probes that successfully investigated Mars – following the Soviet Union, the United States and the European Space Agency (ESA).
Wild applause erupted with beaming smiles from ear to ear at India’s Bangalore mission control center after signals confirming a successful full duration firing of the crafts engines for 24 minutes and 13 seconds for the crucial Mars Orbital Insertion (MOI) maneuver that placed MOM into orbit, were received precisely as planned at 10:30 p.m. EDT (Sept 23) or 8:00 IST (Sept. 24).
Traveling at the speed of light it took nearly 12.5 minutes for the good news signals to arrive on Earth from Mars across the vast expanse of some 140 million miles (225 million kilometers) of interplanetary space.
MOM’s Red Planet arrival was webcast live worldwide by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), India’s space agency which designed and developed the orbiter.
ISRO’s website also gave a play by play in real time, announcing the results of critical spacecraft actions along the arrival timeline just moments after they became known.
“India has successfully reached Mars!” declared Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, who watched the events unfold from mission control at ISRO’s Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network (ISTRAC) in Bangalore.
“History has been created today. We have dared to reach out into the unknown and have achieved the near-impossible. I congratulate all ISRO scientists as well as all my fellow Indians on this historic occasion.”
Modi gave a stirring and passionate speech to the team, the nation and a global audience outlining the benefits and importance of India’s space program. He implored the team to strive for even greater space exploration challenges, sounding very much like US President John F. Kennedy over 50 years ago!
“We have gone beyond the boundaries of human enterprise and imagination,” Modi stated. “We have accurately navigated our spacecraft through a route known to very few. And we have done it from a distance so large that it took even a command signal from Earth to reach it more than it takes sunlight to reach us.”
The do-or-die MOI breaking maneuver slowed MOM’s velocity by 1099 m/s (2457 mph) vs. an expected 1098.7 m/s – using the combined thrust of the 440 Newton Liquid Apogee Motor (LAM) main engine and eight smaller 22 newton liquid fueled engines.
The entire MOI maneuver took place fully autonomously under the spacecrafts preprogrammed sole control due to the long communications lag time and also during a partial communications blackout when the probe was traveling behind Mars and the signal was blocked.
MOM’s goal is to study Mars surface features, morphology, mineralogy and the Martian atmosphere with five indigenous scientific instruments. Among other goals it will sniff for methane as a potential marker for biological activity.
MOM’s success follows closely on the heels of NASA’s MAVEN orbiter which also successfully achieved orbit barely two days earlier on Sept. 21.
Modi noted that more than half of all missions to Mars have failed.
“We have prevailed. We have succeeded on our first attempt. We put together the spacecraft in record time, in a mere three years from first studying its feasibility,” Modi elaborated.
“These are accomplishments that will go down in history. Innovation by its very nature involves risk. It is a leap into the dark .. . and the unknown. Space is indeed the biggest unknown out there.”
“Through your brilliance and hard work [at ISRO] you have made a habit of accomplishing the impossible.”
“The success of our space program is a shining symbol of what we are capable of as a nation. Our space program is an example of achievement which inspires us all .. and future generations … to strive for excellence ourselves.”
“Space technology translates to space applications here on Earth … to improve the life of our citizens.”
“Let us set ourselves even more challenging goals and strive even harder to achieve them. Let us push our boundaries. And then push some more, and push some more!” said Modi jubilantly.
MOM now joins Earth’s newly fortified armada of seven spacecraft currently operating on Mars surface or in orbit – including MAVEN, Mars Odyssey (MO), Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter MRO), Mars Express (MEX), Curiosity and Opportunity.
“MOM and MAVEN will keep each other company in orbit,” said Modi.
Today, MOM concluded her over 10 month interplanetary voyage of some 442 million miles (712 million km) from Earth to the Red Planet.
“Congratulations to the MOM team on behalf of the entire MAVEN team! Here’s to exciting science from the two latest missions to join the Mars fleet!”, wrote Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN Principal Investigator, in a post on the ISRO MOM facebook page.
MOM was launched on Nov. 5, 2013 from India’s spaceport at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Sriharikota, atop the nations indigenous four stage Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV).
The flight path of the approximately $73 Million probe was being continuously monitored by the Indian Deep Space Network (IDSN) and NASA JPL’s Deep Space Network (DSN) to maintain its course.
“The events related to Mars Orbit Insertion progressed satisfactorily and the spacecraft performance was normal. The Spacecraft is now circling Mars in an orbit whose nearest point to Mars (periapsis) is at 421.7 km and farthest point (apoapsis) at 76,993.6 km. The inclination of orbit with respect to the equatorial plane of Mars is 150 degree, as intended. In this orbit, the spacecraft takes 72 hours 51 minutes 51 seconds to go round the Mars once,” according to an ISRO statement.
MOM is expected to investigate the Red Planet for at least six months.
Although MOM’s main objective is a demonstration of technological capabilities, she will also study the planet’s atmosphere and surface.
The probe is equipped with five indigenous instruments to conduct meaningful science – including a tri color imager (MCC) and a methane gas sniffer (MSM) to study the Red Planet’s atmosphere, morphology, mineralogy and surface features. Methane on Earth originates from both geological and biological sources – and could be a potential marker for the existence of Martian microbes.
Both MAVEN and MOM’s goal is to study the Martian atmosphere , unlock the mysteries of its current atmosphere and determine how, why and when the atmosphere and liquid water was lost – and how this transformed Mars climate into its cold, desiccated state of today.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.
Two days out from her history making date with destiny, India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) successfully completed a crucial test firing of the spacecraft’s main liquid engine to confirm its operational readiness for the critical Mars Orbital Insertion (MOI) engine firing on Wednesday morning Sept. 24 IST (Tuesday evening Sept. 23 EDT).
Engineers at the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) which designed and developed MOM successfully fired the probes 440 Newton Liquid Apogee Motor (LAM) earlier today, Sept. 22, 2014, for a duration of 3.968 seconds at 1430 hrs IST (Indian Standard Time), according to today’s announcement from ISRO.
“We had a perfect burn for four seconds as programmed. MOM will now go-ahead with the nominal plan for Mars Orbital Insertion,” said ISRO.
MOM counts as India’s first interplanetary voyager and the nation’s first manmade object to orbit the 4th rock from our Sun – if all goes well.
The LAM was last fired over nine months ago on December 01, 2013 to inject MOM into a ten month long interplanetary Trans Mars Trajectory.
Today’s operation verified that LAM is fully operational to perform the do-or-die MOI braking burn on Sept. 24 targeted for 07:17:32 hrs IST (Sept. 23, 9:47:32 p.m. EDT) that will place the probe into a highly elliptical 377 km x 80,000 km orbit around the Red Planet.
You can watch all the action live on ISRO’s website during the streaming webcast starting at 6:45 IST (9:15 p.m. EDT): http://www.isro.org/
The burn was also marks the spacecraft’s final Trajectory Correction Maneuver known as TCM-4 and changed its velocity by 2.18 meters/second.
“The trajectory has been corrected,” said ISRO.
The $69 Million probe is being continuously monitored by the Indian Deep Space Network (IDSN) and NASA JPL’s Deep Space Network (DSN) to maintain its course.
ISRO space engineers are taking care to precisely navigate MOM to keep it on course during its long heliocentric trajectory from Earth to Mars through a series of in flight Trajectory Correction Maneuvers (TCMs).
The last TCM was successfully performed on June 11 by firing the spacecraft’s 22 Newton thrusters for a duration of 16 seconds. TCM-1 was conducted on December 11, 2013 by firing the 22 Newton Thrusters for 40.5 seconds.
Engineers determined that a TCM planned for August was not needed.
On “D-Day” as ISRO calls it, the LAM and the eight smaller 22 Newton liquid fueled engines are scheduled to fire for a duration of about 24 minutes.
The MOI braking burn will be carried out fully autonomously since MOM will be eclipsed by Mars due to the Sun-Earth-Mars geometry about five minutes prior to initiation of the engine firing.
Round trip radio signals communicating with MOM now take some 21 minutes.
The 1,350 kilogram (2,980 pound) probe has been streaking through space for over ten months.
MOM follows hot on the heels of NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft which successfully achieved Red Planet orbit less than a day ago on Sunday, Sept. 22, 2014.
“We wish a successful MOI for MOM,” said Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN principal investigator with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder (CU/LASP) at MAVEN’s post MOI briefing earlier today.
MOM was launched on Nov. 5, 2013 from India’s spaceport at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Sriharikota, atop the nation’s indigenous four stage Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) which placed the probe into its initial Earth parking orbit.
Watch this cool animation showing the interplanetary path of MOM and MAVEN from Earth to Mars sent to me be an appreciative reader – Sankaranarayanan K V:
Although MOM’s main objective is a demonstration of technological capabilities, she will also study the planet’s atmosphere and surface.
The probe is equipped with five indigenous instruments to conduct meaningful science – including a tri-color imager (MCC) and a methane gas sniffer (MSM) to study the Red Planet’s atmosphere, morphology, mineralogy and surface features. Methane on Earth originates from both geological and biological sources – and could be a potential marker for the existence of Martian microbes.
Both MAVEN’s and MOM’s goal is to study the Martian atmosphere , unlock the mysteries of its current atmosphere and determine how, why and when the atmosphere and liquid water was lost – and how this transformed Mars’ climate into its cold, desiccated state of today.
If all goes well, India will join an elite club of only four who have launched probes that successfully investigated the Red Planet from orbit or the surface – following the Soviet Union, the United States and the European Space Agency (ESA).
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing MOM, MAVEN, Rosetta, Opportunity, Curiosity, Mars rover and more Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.
When you’re talking to spacecraft billions of miles away, you need a powerful voice. And when you’re listening for their faint replies from those same staggering distances, you need an even bigger set of ears. Fortunately, NASA’s Deep Space Network has both — and last week I had the chance to see some of them up close and in person as one of the lucky participants in a NASA Social! Here’s my overview of what happened on those two exciting days.
(And if this doesn’t make you want to apply for the next Social, I don’t know what will.)
The event began on April 1 (no foolin’) at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. Nestled at the feet of steep pine-covered hills northeast of Los Angeles, JPL’s campus is absolutely gorgeous… not quite the location you might imagine for the birthplace of robotic interplanetary explorers! But for over 55 years JPL has been developing some of the world’s most advanced spacecraft, from the Ranger probes which took NASA’s first close-up images of the Moon to the twin Voyagers that toured the Solar System’s outer planets, countless Earth-observing satellites that have revolutionized our ability to monitor global weather, and all of the rovers that have been our first “wheels on the ground” on Mars.
Of course, none of those missions would have been possible if we didn’t have the ability to communicate with the spacecraft. That’s why NASA’s Deep Space Network is such an integral — even if not oft-publicized — part of each and every mission… and has been for 50 years.
In fact, that was the purpose of this Social event which gathered together 50 space fans from across the U.S. — to celebrate the achievements of the DSN with an eye-opening tour of both JPL and the DSN’s Goldstone facility with its flagship 70-meter dish, located amongst the rocky scrub-covered hills in the middle of a military base in California’s Mojave desert.
For many participants — including myself — it was the first time visiting JPL. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written about the news that comes out of it, featured its amazing images, and typed the credit line “NASA/JPL-Caltech” in the caption of a picture, so for me it was incredible to actually be there in person. Just driving through the front gate at JPL, with “Welcome To Our Universe” mounted over the window of the guard station, was mind-blowing!
From the Visitor’s Center we were gathered into groups and taken into the heart of JPL to get a look at the Mission Control room, aka the “center of the universe.” This is where all the data from ongoing space exploration missions arrives (after being collected by the Deep Space Network, of course.) And we didn’t just get to see Mission Control — we actually set up our computers there and got to take our seats at the very same desks that top JPL and NASA engineers and scientists used during the MSL landing in August 2012! In fact we were treated to a replay of Curiosity’s landing on the screens against the wall that first displayed the rover’s images of Gale Crater. The whole experience was a bit surreal — I vividly recall watching it live, and there we were in the same room as if it were happening all over again! (We even got to re-enact the celebration of the touchdown announcement as our group photo.)
After several presentations and Q&A sessions with NASA mission engineers — recorded live for NASA TV — we all embarked on a tour of JPL’s rock-strewn “Mars Yard” where a stunt double of Curiosity, named “Maggie,” resides in a super high-tech garage. Maggie helps engineers determine what Curiosity can and can’t do on Mars… much more safely than actually having the “real” rover attempt itself.
Watch the NASA TV coverage from Mission Control below:
The group then got the chance to see an actual spacecraft being built in the Spacecraft Assembly Facility, a huge clean room where engineers were building components of the upcoming SMAP (Soil Moisture Active Passive) satellite. Slated for launch in October, SMAP will take measurements of the planet’s soil moisture in its freeze/thaw states from orbit over a period of three years. As we watched from the windowed viewing platform several “bunny-suited” engineers were busy working on SMAP’s 6-meter reflector. In another six months or so the parts that were scattered around that clean room will be performing science in orbit!
From there it was off to the JPL museum and some intimate (and highly animated!) discussions about mission technology with project formulator Randii Wessen and propulsion engineer Todd Barber. Afterward I took the opportunity to talk with Todd a bit about his role on the Cassini mission, for which he’s the lead propulsion engineer.
(You all know how much I adore Cassini, so that was a real treat.)
When we got back to Mission Control we had a chance to meet with and have photos taken with JPL’s very own “Mohawk guy” Bobak Ferdowsi, who achieved widespread fame during the internet broadcast landing of Curiosity. I had Bobak sign my toy Curiosity rover, which now has a “BF” on the back of its die-cast RTG. One for the space shelf!
The second half of the Social began early the next day — for me, very early. After getting up at 3:15 a.m. and making a two-hour drive from Pasadena to Barstow in the dark, I and the other participants met up with the Social bus in a park-and-ride lot at 6:00 just as the Sun was beginning to brighten the eastern sky. (Some had stayed overnight in Barstow, while others made the early drive out like I did.) Once the bus filled, we headed north into the Mojave to arrive at NASA’s Deep Space Network Communications Complex at Goldstone, located within the Fort Irwin military training area.
The location is rugged and remote — the perfect place to listen for the faint signals from spacecraft trundling across dusty Mars and soaring through the farthest reaches of the Solar System! The nine main DSN antennas at Goldstone are scattered across several square miles of desert, enormous dishes pointed more-or-less directly upward, aiming at the locations of distant spacecraft in order to both receive and transmit data. All of them are huge, but by far the most impressive is the gigantic 70-meter DSS-14 dish that towers above the rest in both height and width.
Recently renovated , the fully-positionable DSS-14 “Mars antenna” dish (so called because of its first mission tracking the Mariner 4 spacecraft in 1965) weighs in at 2.7 million kilograms yet “floats” atop a thin film of oil a quarter of a millimeter thick!
How smoothly does a three-thousand-ton radar dish move? We got to find out — check out the video below:
(Note: as it turned out, DSS-14 wasn’t turning to communicate with anything… the show was just for us!)
Of course, we all spent plenty of time taking pictures of the 70-meter, both inside and out — we were treated to a tour of this and several other dish sites hosted by JPL’s Jeff Osman, a specialist in the DSN antennas and their operations.
(One of us even chose to record the DSS-14 antenna with pencils and paper — watch fellow Social participant Jedediah Dore’s sketch and account of the experience here.)
The highlight of the day at Goldstone was (if not just being there!) was being present for the official celebration of the facility’s 50th anniversary. Featuring speakers from JPL and DSN, as well as many esteemed guests, the event — held indoors because of strong winds outside — commemorated the impact and important contributions of the complex over the past half-century of space exploration. According to speaker Jim Erickson of JPL, “There hasn’t been a time in my career when the DSN wasn’t there for us.”
After that the NASA Social group was invited to take a few moments to mingle with speakers and guests — when else would I have a chance to chat with JPL director Dr. Charles Elachi? — and then we all returned to our own meeting room where refreshments were waiting and a (quite delicious) DSN50 cake was cut and served.
It was truly a fantastic and well-planned event, giving 50 people the chance to see an integral part of our space program that, although it doesn’t usually receive the same kind of exposure that rocket launches and planetary landings enjoy, makes all of it possible.
Here’s to 50 more years of DSN and its long-distance relationship with all of our intrepid space explorers!
See what communications are currently coming in and going out of the DSN dishes — in Goldstone as well as in Madrid and Canberra — here, and learn more about the history of Goldstone here.
And a big thanks to Courtney O’Connor, Veronica McGregor, John Yembrick, and Stephanie Smith for putting this NASA Social together, Annie Wynn and Shannon Moore for setting up and organizing participant groups on Facebook and Google (which makes offsite planning so much easier), Jeff Osman and Shannon McConnell for the tours of the DSN sites and, of course, everyone at JPL and Goldstone who helped to make the event a wonderful success!
Would you like to be a part of a NASA Social? Find out what events are coming up and how to apply for them here.