ESA’s ExoMars has Completed its Aerobraking Maneuvers to Bring it Into a Circular 400 km Orbit Around Mars

In March of 2016, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched the ExoMars (Exobiology on Mars) mission into space. A joint project between the ESA and Roscosmos, this two-part mission consisted of the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Schiaparelli lander, both of which arrived in orbit around Mars in October of 2016. While Schiaparelli crashed while attempting to land, the TGO has gone on to accomplish some impressive feats.

For example, in March of 2017, the orbiter commenced a series of aerobraking maneuvers, where it started to lower its orbit to enter Mars’ thin atmosphere and slow itself down. According to Armelle Hubault, the Spacecraft Operations Engineer on the TGO flight control team, the ExoMars mission has made tremendous progress and is well on its way to establishing its final orbit around the Red Planet.

TGO’s mission has been to study the surface of Mars, characterize the distribution of water and chemicals beneath the surface, study the planet’s geological evolution, identify future landing sites, and to search for possible biosignatures of past Martian life. Once it has established its final orbit around Mars – 400 km (248.5 mi) from the surface – the TGO will be ideally positioned to conduct these studies.

Visualization of the ExoMars mission’s Trace Gas Orbiter conducting aerobraking maneuvers to March of 2018. Credit: ESA

The ESA also released a graphic (shown above) demonstrating the successive orbits the TGO has made since it began aerobraking – and will continue to make until March of 2018. Whereas the red dot indicates the orbiter (and the blue line its current orbit), the grey lines show successive reductions in the TGO’s orbital period. The bold lines denote a reduction of 1 hour while the thin lines denote a reduction of 30 minutes.

Essentially, a single aerobraking maneuver consist of the orbiter passing into Mars’ upper atmosphere and relying on its solar arrays to generate tiny amounts of drag. Over time, this process slows the craft down and gradually lowers its orbit around Mars. As Armelle Hubault recently posted on the ESA’s rocket science blog:

“We started on the biggest orbit with an apocentre (the furthest distance from Mars during each orbit) of 33 200 km and an orbit of 24 hr in March 2017, but had to pause last summer due to Mars being in conjunction. We recommenced aerobraking in August 2017, and are on track to finish up in the final science orbit in mid-March 2018. As of today, 30 Jan 2018, we have slowed ExoMars TGO by 781.5 m/s. For comparison, this speed is more than twice as fast as the speed of a typical long-haul jet aircraft.”

Earlier this week, the orbiter passed through the point where it made its closest approach to the surface in its orbit (the pericenter passage, represented by the red line). During this approach, the craft dipped well into Mars’ uppermost atmosphere, which dragged the aircraft and slowed it down further. In its current elliptical orbit, it reaches a maximum distance of 2700 km (1677 mi) from Mars (it’s apocenter).

Visualization of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter aerobraking at Mars. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Despite being a decades-old practice, aerobraking remains a significant technical challenge for mission teams. Every time a spacecraft passes through a planet’s atmosphere, its flight controllers need to make sure that its orientation is just right in order to slow down and ensure that the craft remains stable. If their calculations are off by even a little, the spacecraft could begin to spin out of control and veer off course. As Hubault explained:

“We have to adjust our pericentre height regularly, because on the one hand, the martian atmosphere varies in density (so sometimes we brake more and sometimes we brake less) and on the other hand, martian gravity is not the same everywhere (so sometimes the planet pulls us down and sometimes we drift out a bit). We try to stay at about 110 km altitude for optimum braking effect. To keep the spacecraft on track, we upload a new set of commands every day – so for us, for flight dynamics and for the ground station teams, it’s a very demanding time!”

The next step for the flight control team is to use the spacecraft’s thrusters to maneuver the spacecraft into its final orbit (represented by the green line on the diagram). At this point, the spacecraft will be in its final science and operation data relay orbit, where it will be in a roughly circular orbit about 400 km (248.5 mi) from the surface of Mars. As Hubault wrote, the process of bringing the TGO into its final orbit remains a challenging one.

“The main challenge at the moment is that, since we never know in advance how much the spacecraft is going to be slowed during each pericentre passage, we also never know exactly when it is going to reestablish contact with our ground stations after pointing back to Earth,” she said. “We are working with a 20-min ‘window’ for acquisition of signal (AOS), when the ground station first catches TGO’s signal during any given station visibility, whereas normally for interplanetary missions we have a firm AOS time programmed in advance.”

Artist’s impression of the ESA’s Exomars 2020 rover, which is expected to land on the surface of Mars by the Spring of 2o21. Credit:ESA

With the spacecraft’s orbital period now shortened to less than 3 hours, the flight control team has to go through this exercise 8 times a day now. Once the TGO has reached its final orbit (by March of 2018), the orbiter will remain there until 2022, serving as a telecommunications relay satellite for future missions. One of its tasks will be to relay data from the ESA’s ExoMars 2020 mission, which will consist of a European rover and a Russian surface platform being deployed the surface of Mars in the Spring of 2021.

Along with NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, this rover/lander pair will be the latest in a long line of robotic missions looking to unlock the secrets of Mars past. In addition, these missions will conduct crucial investigations that will pave the way for eventual sample return missions to Earth, not to mention crewed to the surface!

Further Reading: ESA

Rosetta Orbiter Approved for Extended Mission and Bold Comet Landing

Rosetta will attempt comet landing
This single frame Rosetta navigation camera image of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko was taken on 15 June 2015 from a distance of 207 km from the comet centre. The image has a resolution of 17.7 m/pixel and measures 18.1 km across. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0 [/caption]

Europe’s history making Rosetta cometary spacecraft has been granted a nine month mission extension to plus up its bountiful science discoveries as well as been given the chance to accomplish one final and daring historic challenge, as engineers attempt to boldly go and land the probe on the undulating surface of the comet its currently orbiting.

Officials with the European Space Agency (ESA) gave the “GO” on June 23 saying “The adventure continues” for Rosetta to march forward with mission operations until the end of September 2016.

If all continues to go well “the spacecraft will most likely be landed on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko” said ESA to the unabashed glee of the scientists and engineers responsible for leading Rosetta and reaping the rewards of nearly a year of groundbreaking research since the probe arrived at comet 67P in August 2014.

“This is fantastic news for science,” says Matt Taylor, ESA’s Rosetta Project Scientist, in a statement.

It will take about 3 months for Rosetta to spiral down to the surface.

After a decade long chase of over 6.4 billion kilometers (4 Billion miles), ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft arrived at the pockmarked Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on Aug. 6, 2014 for history’s first ever attempt to orbit a comet for long term study.

Since then, Rosetta deployed the piggybacked Philae landing craft to accomplish history’s first ever touchdown on a comets nucleus on November 12, 2014. It has also orbited the comet for over 10 months of up close observation, coming at times to as close as 8 kilometers. It is equipped with a suite 11 instruments to analyze every facet of the comet’s nature and environment.

ESA Philae lander approaches comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko on 12 November 2014 as imaged from Rosetta orbiter after deployment and during seven hour long approach for 1st ever  touchdown on a comets surface.  Credit:  ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA - Composition by Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
ESA Philae lander approaches comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko on 12 November 2014 as imaged from Rosetta orbiter after deployment and during seven hour long approach for 1st ever touchdown on a comets surface. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA – Composition by Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

Currently, Comet 67P is still becoming more and more active as it orbits closer and closer to the sun over the next two months. The mission extension will enable researchers to a far greater period of time to compare the comets activity, physical and chemical properties and evolution ‘before and after’ they arrive at perihelion some six weeks from today.

The pair reach perihelion on August 13, 2015 at a distance of 186 million km from the Sun, between the orbits of Earth and Mars.

“We’ll be able to monitor the decline in the comet’s activity as we move away from the Sun again, and we’ll have the opportunity to fly closer to the comet to continue collecting more unique data. By comparing detailed ‘before and after’ data, we’ll have a much better understanding of how comets evolve during their lifetimes.”

Because the comet is nearly at its peak of outgassing and dust spewing activity, Rosetta must observe the comet from a stand off distance, while still remaining at a close proximity, to avoid damage to the probe and its instruments.

Furthermore, the Philae lander “awoke” earlier this month after entering a sven month hibernation period after successfully compleing some 60 hours of science observations from the surface.

Jets of gas and dust are blasting from the active neck of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in this photo mosaic assembled from four images taken on 26 September 2014 by the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft at a distance of 26.3 kilometers (16 miles) from the center of the comet. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Jets of gas and dust are blasting from the active neck of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in this photo mosaic assembled from four images taken on 26 September 2014 by the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft at a distance of 26.3 kilometers (16 miles) from the center of the comet. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

As the comet again edges away from the sun and becomes less active, the team will attempt to land Rosetta on comet 67P before it runs out of fuel and the energy produced from the huge solar panels is insufficient to continue mission operations.

“This time, as we’re riding along next to the comet, the most logical way to end the mission is to set Rosetta down on the surface,” says Patrick Martin, Rosetta Mission Manager.

“But there is still a lot to do to confirm that this end-of-mission scenario is possible. We’ll first have to see what the status of the spacecraft is after perihelion and how well it is performing close to the comet, and later we will have to try and determine where on the surface we can have a touchdown.”

During the extended mission, the team will use the experience gained in operating Rosetta in the challenging cometary environment to carry out some new and potentially slightly riskier investigations, including flights across the night-side of the comet to observe the plasma, dust, and gas interactions in this region, and to collect dust samples ejected close to the nucleus, says ESA.

Rosetta’s lander Philae has returned the first panoramic image from the surface of a comet. The view as it has been captured by the CIVA-P imaging system, shows a 360º view around the point of final touchdown. The three feet of Philae’s landing gear can be seen in some of the frames.  Superimposed on top of the image is a sketch of the Philae lander in the configuration the lander team currently believe it is in.  The view has been processed to show further details.   Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA. Post processing: Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo
Rosetta’s lander Philae has returned the first panoramic image from the surface of a comet. The view as it has been captured by the CIVA-P imaging system, shows a 360º view around the point of final touchdown. The three feet of Philae’s landing gear can be seen in some of the frames. Superimposed on top of the image is a sketch of the Philae lander in the configuration the lander team currently believe it is in. The view has been processed to show further details. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA. Post processing: Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about Rosetta, SpaceX, Europa, Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Jun 25-28: “SpaceX launch, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Antares and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

This single frame Rosetta navigation camera image was taken from a distance of 77.8 km from the centre of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on 22 March 2015. The image has a resolution of 6.6 m/pixel and measures 6 x 6 km. The image is cropped and processed to bring out the details of the comet’s activity. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0
This single frame Rosetta navigation camera image was taken from a distance of 77.8 km from the centre of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on 22 March 2015. The image has a resolution of 6.6 m/pixel and measures 6 x 6 km. The image is cropped and processed to bring out the details of the comet’s activity. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

Longest Woman Spaceflyer to Return as Russia Reshuffles Station Launches After Rocket Failure

The longest space mission in history by a female astronaut is now set to conclude on Thursday, following Russia’s confirmation of a significant reshuffling of the crew and cargo flight manifest to the International Space Station (ISS) for the remainder of 2015 – all in the wake of the unexpected Russian launch failure of a station bound Progress resupply ship in late April with far reaching consequences.

The record setting flight of approximately 200 days by Italian spaceflyer Samantha Cristoforetti, along with her two Expedition 43 crewmates, will come to an end on Thursday, June 11, when the trio are set to undock and depart the station aboard their Russian Soyuz crew capsule and return back to Earth a few hours later.

NASA TV coverage begins at 6 a.m. EDT on June 11.

Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency, officially announced today, June 9, a revamped schedule changing the launch dates of several upcoming crewed launches this year to the Earth orbiting outpost.

Launch dates for the next three Progress cargo flights have also been adjusted.

The next three person ISS crew will now launch between July 23 to 25 on the Soyuz TMA-17M capsule from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The exact timing of the Expedition 44 launch using a Russian Soyuz-FG booster is yet to be determined.

The International Space Station, photographed by the crew of STS-132 as they disembarked. Credit: NASA
The International Space Station, photographed by the crew of STS-132 as they disembarked. Credit: NASA

Soon after the Progress mishap, the Expedition 43 mission was extended by about a month so as to minimize the period when the ISS is staffed by only a reduced crew of three people aboard – since the blastoff of the next crew was simultaneously delayed by Roscosmos by about two months from May to late July.

Indeed Cristoforetti’s endurance record only came about as a result of the very late mission extension ordered by Roscosmos, so the agency could investigate the root cause of the recent launch failure of the Russian Progress 59 freighter that spun wildly out of control soon after blastoff on April 28 on a Soyuz-2.1A carrier rocket.

Roscosmos determined that the Progress failure was caused by an “abnormal separation of the 3rd stage and the cargo vehicle” along with “associated frequency dynamic characteristics.”

The Expedition 43 crew comprising of Cristoforetti, NASA astronaut and current station commander Terry Virts, and Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov had been scheduled to head back home around May 13. The trio have been working and living aboard the complex since November 2014.

The 38-year old Cristoforetti actually broke the current space flight endurance record for a female astronaut during this past weekend on Saturday, June 6, when she eclipsed the record of 194 days, 18 hours and 2 minutes established by NASA astronaut Sunita Williams on a prior station flight back in 2007.

Cristoforetti, of the European Space Agency (ESA), also counts as Italy’s first female astronaut.

The Progress 59 cargo vessel, also known as Progress M-27M, along with all its 2.5 tons of contents were destroyed during an uncontrolled plummet back to Earth on May 8.

NASA astronaut Terry Virts (left) Commander of Expedition 43 on the International Space Station along with crewmates Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov (center) and ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti on May 6, 2015 perform a checkout of their Russian Soyuz spacesuits in preparation for the journey back to Earth - now set for June 11, 2015.  Credits: NASA
NASA astronaut Terry Virts (left) Commander of Expedition 43 on the International Space Station along with crewmates Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov (center) and ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti on May 6, 2015 perform a checkout of their Russian Soyuz spacesuits in preparation for the journey back to Earth – now set for June 11, 2015. Credits: NASA

Roscosmos announced that they are accelerating the planned launch of the next planned Progress 60 (or M-28M) from August 6 up to July 3 on a Soyuz-U carrier rocket, which is different from the problematic Soyuz-2.1A rocket.

Following the Soyuz crew launch in late July, the next Soyuz will blastoff on Sept. 1 for a 10 day taxi mission on the TMA-18M capsule with cosmonaut Sergei Volkov and ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen. After British opera singer Sarah Brightman withdrew from participating as a space tourist, a new third crew member will be named soon by Roscosmos.

The final crewed Soyuz of 2015 with the TMA-19M capsule has been postponed from Nov. 20 to Dec. 15.

Also in the mix is the launch of NASA’s next contracted unmanned Dragon cargo mission by commercial provider SpaceX on the CRS-7 flight. Dragon CRS-7 is now slated for liftoff on June 26. Watch for my onsite reports from KSC.

The most recent unmanned Dragon cargo CRS-6 mission concluded with a Pacific Ocean splashdown on May 21.

The Dragon will be carrying critical US equipment, known as the IDA, enabling docking by the SpaceX Crew Dragon and Boeing CST-100 astronaut transporters – due for first crewed launches in 2017.

ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti enjoys a drink from the new ISSpresso machine. The espresso device allows crews to make tea, coffee, broth, or other hot beverages they might enjoy.  Credit: NASA
ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti enjoys a drink from the new ISSpresso machine. The espresso device allows crews to make tea, coffee, broth, or other hot beverages they might enjoy. Credit: NASA

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka will remain aboard the station after the Virts crew returns to begin Expedition 44.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Rosetta Discovery of Surprise Molecular Breakup Mechanism in Comet Coma Alters Perceptions

A NASA science instrument flying aboard the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft has made a very surprising discovery – namely that the molecular breakup mechanism of “water and carbon dioxide molecules spewing from the comet’s surface” into the atmosphere of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is caused by “electrons close to the surface.”

The surprising results relating to the emission of the comet coma came from measurements gathered by the probes NASA funded Alice instrument and is causing scientists to completely rethink what we know about the wandering bodies, according to the instruments science team.

“The discovery we’re reporting is quite unexpected,” said Alan Stern, principal investigator for the Alice instrument at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado, in a statement.

“It shows us the value of going to comets to observe them up close, since this discovery simply could not have been made from Earth or Earth orbit with any existing or planned observatory. And, it is fundamentally transforming our knowledge of comets.”

A paper reporting the Alice findings has been accepted for publication by the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics, according to statements from NASA and ESA.

Alice is a spectrograph that focuses on sensing the far-ultraviolet wavelength band and is the first instrument of its kind to operate at a comet.

Until now it had been thought that photons from the sun were responsible for causing the molecular breakup, said the team.

The carbon dioxide and water are being released from the nucleus and the excitation breakup occurs barely half a mile above the comet’s nucleus.

“Analysis of the relative intensities of observed atomic emissions allowed the Alice science team to determine the instrument was directly observing the “parent” molecules of water and carbon dioxide that were being broken up by electrons in the immediate vicinity, about six-tenths of a mile (one kilometer) from the comet’s nucleus.”

The excitation mechanism is detailed in the graphic below.

Rosetta’s continued close study of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko has revealed an unexpected process at work close to the comet nucleus that causes the rapid breakup of water and carbon dioxide molecules.   Credits: ESA/ATG medialab; ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA; ESA/Rosetta/NavCam – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0
Rosetta’s continued close study of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko has revealed an unexpected process at work close to the comet nucleus that causes the rapid breakup of water and carbon dioxide molecules. Credits: ESA/ATG medialab; ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA; ESA/Rosetta/NavCam – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

“The spatial variation of the emissions along the slit indicates that the excitation occurs within a few hundred meters of the surface and the gas and dust production are correlated,” according to the Astronomy and Astrophysics journal paper.

The data shows that the water and CO2 molecules break up via a two-step process.

“First, an ultraviolet photon from the Sun hits a water molecule in the comet’s coma and ionises it, knocking out an energetic electron. This electron then hits another water molecule in the coma, breaking it apart into two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen, and energising them in the process. These atoms then emit ultraviolet light that is detected at characteristic wavelengths by Alice.”

“Similarly, it is the impact of an electron with a carbon dioxide molecule that results in its break-up into atoms and the observed carbon emissions.”

After a decade long chase of over 6.4 billion kilometers (4 Billion miles), ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft arrived at the pockmarked Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on Aug. 6, 2014 for history’s first ever attempt to orbit a comet for long term study.

Since then, Rosetta deployed the Philae landing craft to accomplish history’s first ever touchdown on a comets nucleus. It has also orbited the comet for over 10 months of up close observation, coming at times to as close as 8 kilometers. It is equipped with a suite 11 instruments to analyze every facet of the comet’s nature and environment.

Comet 67P is still becoming more and more active as it orbits closer and closer to the sun over the next two months. The pair reach perihelion on August 13, 2015 at a distance of 186 million km from the Sun, between the orbits of Earth and Mars.

Alice works by examining light emitted from the comet to understand the chemistry of the comet’s atmosphere, or coma and determine the chemical composition with the far-ultraviolet spectrograph.

According to the measurements from Alice, the water and carbon dioxide in the comet’s atmospheric coma originate from plumes erupting from its surface.

“It is similar to those that the Hubble Space Telescope discovered on Jupiter’s moon Europa, with the exception that the electrons at the comet are produced by solar radiation, while the electrons at Europa come from Jupiter’s magnetosphere,” said Paul Feldman, an Alice co-investigator from the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, in a statement.

Jets of gas and dust are blasting from the active neck of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in this photo mosaic assembled from four images taken on 26 September 2014 by the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft at a distance of 26.3 kilometers (16 miles) from the center of the comet. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Rosetta discovered an unexpected process at comet nucleus that causes the rapid breakup of water and carbon dioxide molecules. Jets of gas and dust are blasting from the active neck of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in this photo mosaic assembled from four images taken on 26 September 2014 by the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft at a distance of 26.3 kilometers (16 miles) from the center of the comet. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Other instruments aboard Rosetta including MIRO, ROSINA and VIRTIS, which study relative abundances of coma constituents, corroborate the Alice findings.

“These early results from Alice demonstrate how important it is to study a comet at different wavelengths and with different techniques, in order to probe various aspects of the comet environment,” says ESA’s Rosetta project scientist Matt Taylor, in a statement.

“We’re actively watching how the comet evolves as it moves closer to the Sun along its orbit towards perihelion in August, seeing how the plumes become more active due to solar heating, and studying the effects of the comet’s interaction with the solar wind.”

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Our Beautiful Earth – Happy New Year Photos and Greetings from the ISS Crew

Spectacular View of the Alps From Space!
Expedition 42 Flight Engineer Samantha Cristoforetti of the European Space Agency (ESA) took this photograph of the Alps from the International Space Station. She wrote, “I’m biased, but aren’t the Alps from space spectacular? What a foggy day on the Po plane, though! #Italy” Credit: NASA/ESA/Samantha Cristoforetti
Updated with more images[/caption]

As we say goodbye to 2014 and ring in New Year 2015, the Expedition 42 crew living and working aboard the International Space Station enjoys the new gallery of images they’ve sent back of “Our Beautiful Earth.”

The current six person crew includes astronauts and cosmonauts from three nations – America, Russia, and Italy – and the four men and two women are celebrating New Year’s 2015 aboard the massive orbiting lab complex.

Happy New Year! Celebrating from space with @AstroTerry.  Credit: NASA/Terry Virts
Happy New Year! Celebrating from space with @AstroTerry. Credit: NASA/Terry Virts

They comprise Expedition 42 Commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Terry Virts from NASA, Samantha Cristoforetti from the European Space Agency (ESA), and cosmonauts Aleksandr Samokutyayev, Yelena Serova, and Anton Shkaplerov from Russia.

Beauty everywhere! Flying from the Mediterranean to the Caspian Sea, this appeared through the clouds.#HelloEarth.  Credit: NASA/ESA/Samantha Cristoforetti
Beauty everywhere! Flying from the Mediterranean to the Caspian Sea, this appeared through the clouds.#HelloEarth. Credit: NASA/ESA/Samantha Cristoforetti

The ISS has been continuously occupied by humans for 15 years. And they are joined by Robonaut 2 who recently got legs.

This area saw some serious action about 350 million years ago! Gweni-Fada meteorite crater in #Chad. Credit: NASA/ESA/Samantha Cristoforetti
This area saw some serious action about 350 million years ago! Gweni-Fada meteorite crater in #Chad. Credit: NASA/ESA/Samantha Cristoforetti

Terry Virts and Samantha Cristoforetti have been especially prolific in picture taking and posting to social media for us all to enjoy the view while speeding merrily along at 17,500 mph from an altitude of about 250 miles (400 kilometers) above Earth.

Here’s a special New Year video greeting from Wilmore and Virts:

Video Caption: Happy New Year from the International Space Station from NASA astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Terry Virts. Credit: NASA

“Happy New Year from the International Space Station!” said Wilmore.

“We figure that we will be over midnight somewhere on the Earth on New Year’s for 16 times throughout this day. So we plan to celebrate New Year’s 16 times with our comrades and our people down on Earth.”

No sunsets until Jan 4th- we are in a "high beta" orbit now, so this is as dark as it gets.  Credit: NASA/Terry Virts
No sunsets until Jan 4th- we are in a “high beta” orbit now, so this is as dark as it gets. Credit: NASA/Terry Virts

“We wish everybody a happy, healthy, and prosperous 2015 as we get the awesome privilege of celebrating New Year’s here on the space station with our six station crewmates,” added Virts!

“We’ll enjoy our 16 New Year’s celebrations here.”

Part of the #Aral sea peaking through the clouds as we flew into #Kazakhstan! #HelloEarth.  Credit: NASA/ESA/Samantha Cristoforetti
Part of the #Aral sea peaking through the clouds as we flew into #Kazakhstan! #HelloEarth. Credit: NASA/ESA/Samantha Cristoforetti

They plan to celebrate the dawn of 2015 with fruit juice toasts, NASA reports.

The year 2015 starts officially for the station crew at midnight by the Universal Time Clock (UTC), also known as Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), in London, or at 7 p.m. EST Dec. 31.

If I couldn't be in space right now I'd want to be here- #Hawaii.  Credit: NASA/Terry Virts
If I couldn’t be in space right now I’d want to be here- #Hawaii. Credit: NASA/Terry Virts

New Year’s Day 2015 is a day off for the crew.

And I’m certain they’ll be gazing out the windows capturing more views of “Our Beautiful Earth!”

42 è la risposta! // 42 is the answer! #Expedition42 Guide to the galaxy. Credit: @NASA_Astronauts #AstroButch
42 è la risposta! // 42 is the answer! #Expedition42 Guide to the galaxy. Credit: @NASA_Astronauts #AstroButch

And don’t forget to catch up on the Christmas holiday imagery and festivities from the station crews in my recent stories – here and here.

#NewYork NewYork! Can almost see the Statue of Liberty. Which is, by the way, #UNESCO#WorldHeritage! Credit: NASA/ESA/Samantha Cristoforetti
#NewYork NewYork! Can almost see the Statue of Liberty. Which is, by the way, #UNESCO#WorldHeritage! Credit: NASA/ESA/Samantha Cristoforetti

Be sure to remember that you can always try and catch of glimpse of the ISS flying overhead by checking NASA’s Spot the Station website with a complete list of locations.

It’s easy to plug in and determine visibilities in your area worldwide. And try to shoot a time-lapse view like mine below.

ISS streaks over Princeton, NJ - time lapse image.  Credit: Ken Kremer
ISS streaks over Princeton, NJ – time lapse image. Credit: Ken Kremer

Meanwhile the crew continues science operations and preparations for next week’s arrival of the next unmanned space station resupply ship on the SpaceX CRS-5 mission.

CRS-5 is slated to blast off atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on Jan. 6 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

 SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is set to soar to ISS after completing  successful static fire test on Dec. 19 ahead of planned CRS-5 mission for NASA in early January 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is set to soar to the ISS after completing a successful static fire test on Dec. 19 ahead of the planned CRS-5 mission for NASA in early January 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

ISS astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore, NASA, Samantha Cristoforetti, ESA and Terry Virts, NASA send Christmas 2014 greetings from the space station to the people of Earth.  Credit: NASA/ESA
ISS astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore, NASA, Samantha Cristoforetti, ESA, and Terry Virts, NASA, send Christmas 2014 greetings from the space station to the people of Earth. Credit: NASA/ESA
ISS Expedition 42. Credit: NASA/ESA/Roscosmos
ISS Expedition 42. Credit: NASA/ESA/Roscosmos

Glorious Global 3-D Mars from ISRO’s MOM and ESA’s Rosetta

Here’s another breathtakingly glorious view from India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) – her first global 3-D portrait of her new home careening around the Red Planet.

MOM is India’s first deep space voyager to explore beyond the confines of her home planet’s influence and just successfully arrived at the Red Planet after the “history creating” orbital insertion maneuver on Sept. 23/24 following a ten month journey.

This newly released 3-D view from MOM expands upon the initial 2-D global color view of Mars released by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), India’s space agency. See below and detailed in my earlier story – here.

The 3-D image was generated from multiple pictures acquired by MOM’s on-board Mars Color Camera on Sept 28, 2014, from the very high altitude of approximately 74,500 kilometers as the spacecraft orbits Mars.

ISRO's Mars Orbiter Mission captures spectacular portrait of the Red Planet and swirling dust storms with the on-board Mars Color Camera from an altitude of 74500 km on Sept. 28, 2014.  Credit: ISRO
ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission captures spectacular portrait of the Red Planet and swirling dust storms with the on-board Mars Color Camera from an altitude of 74,500 km on Sept. 28, 2014. Credit: ISRO

The images were taken by the tri-color camera as MOM swooped around the Red Planet in a highly elliptical orbit whose nearest point to Mars (periapsis) is at 421.7 km and farthest point (apoapsis) at 76,993.6 km, according to ISRO.

Therefore, the 3-D Red Planet portrait was captured nearly at apoapsis. And being three dimensional, it gives a stereo sense of the huge dust storm swirling over a large swath of the planet’s Northern Hemisphere set against the blackness of space.

Below right is the southern polar ice cap. To see the 3-D effect, whip out your handy pair of left-eye red, right-eye blue color anaglyph glasses.

And while we’re on the subject of spacely 3-D, it’s worth noting that another of humanity’s ground breaking probes currently making news – ESA’s comet hunting Rosetta probe – likewise snapped a glorious 3-D view of Mars way back in 2007, during the brief, but critical, gravity assist slingshot maneuver that flung Rosetta along her vast 10 year path through interplanetary space.

So by way of comparison let’s take a trip down memory lane and be sure to look back at Rosetta’s global 3-D Martian views (below) taken by the high resolution OSIRIS camera on 24 February 2007 at 19:28 CET from a distance of about 240,000 kilometers.

Mars 3-D anaglyph (black & white) taken by ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft during Mars flyby on 24 February 2007 from a distance of about 240 000 km.  Image resolution is about 5 km.  Credit: MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/ IAA/ RSSD/ INTA/ UPM/ DASP/ IDA
Mars 3-D anaglyph (black & white) taken by ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft during Mars flyby on 24 February 2007 from a distance of about 240,000 km. Image resolution is about 5 km. Credit: MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/ IAA/ RSSD/ INTA/ UPM/ DASP/ IDA

The Rosetta team created both color and black & white 3-D views of Mars.

Mars 3-D anaglyph (color) taken by ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft during Mars flyby on 24 February 2007 from a distance of about 240 000 km.  Image resolution is about 5 km.  Credit: MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/ IAA/ RSSD/ INTA/ UPM/ DASP/ IDA
Mars 3-D anaglyph (color) taken by ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft during Mars flyby on 24 February 2007 from a distance of about 240,000 km. Image resolution is about 5 km. Credit: MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/ IAA/ RSSD/ INTA/ UPM/ DASP/ IDA

And be sure to check out Rosetta’s 2-D true color view showing a different swatch of the Red Planet compared to MOM, along with a more expansive view of the southern polar ice cap.

The first true-colour image of Mars from ESA’s Rosetta generated using the OSIRIS orange (red), green and blue colour filters. The image was acquired on 24 February 2007 at 19:28 CET from a distance of about 240 000 km; image resolution is about 5 km/pixel. Credit: MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/ IAA/ RSSD/ INTA/ UPM/ DASP/ IDA
The first true-color image of Mars from ESA’s Rosetta generated using the OSIRIS orange (red), green and blue color filters. The image was acquired on 24 February 2007 at 19:28 CET from a distance of about 240,000 km; image resolution is about 5 km/pixel. Credit: MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/ IAA/ RSSD/ INTA/ UPM/ DASP/ IDA

The $73 million MOM mission is expected to last at least six months.

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 and could last 10 years or more.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

5 Landing Site Candidates Selected for Rosetta’s Historic Philae Comet Lander

Five candidate sites were identified on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko for Rosetta’s Philae lander. The approximate locations of the five regions are marked on these OSIRIS narrow-angle camera images taken on 16 August 2014 from a distance of about 100 km. Enlarged insets below highlight 5 landing zones. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
Story updated[/caption]

The ‘Top 5’ landing site candidates have been chosen for the Rosetta orbiters piggybacked Philae lander for humankind’s first attempt to land on a comet. See graphics above and below.

The potential touchdown sites were announce today, Aug. 25, based on high resolution measurements collected by ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft over the past two weeks since arriving at the bizarre and pockmarked Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on Aug. 6, 2014.

Rosetta is a mission of many firsts, including history’s first ever attempt to orbit a comet for long term study.

Philae’s history making landing on comet 67P is currently scheduled for around Nov. 11, 2014, and will be entirely automatic. The 100 kg lander is equipped with 10 science instruments.

“This is the first time landing sites on a comet have been considered,” said Stephan Ulamec, Lander Manager at DLR (German Aerospace Center), in an ESA statement.

Artist impression of Philae on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.  Credit: ESA/ATG medialab
Artist impression of Philae on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Since rendezvousing with the comet after a decade long chase of over 6.4 billion kilometers (4 Billion miles), a top priority task for the science and engineering team leading Rosetta has been “Finding a landing strip” for the Philae comet lander.

“The challenge ahead is to map the surface and find a landing strip,” said Andrea Accomazzo, ESA Rosetta Spacecraft Operations Manager, at the Aug. 6 ESA arrival live webcast.

So ‘the clock is ticking’ to select a suitable landing zone soon as the comet warms up and the surface becomes ever more active as it swings in closer to the sun and makes the landing ever more hazardous.

This past weekend, the site selection team met at CNES, Toulouse, France, and intensively discussed and scrutinized a preliminary list of 10 potential sites, and whittled that down to the ‘Top 5.’

Their goal was to find a ‘technically feasible’ touchdown site that was both safe and scientifically interesting.

“The site must balance the technical needs of the orbiter and lander during all phases of the separation, descent, and landing, and during operations on the surface with the scientific requirements of the 10 instruments on board Philae,” said ESA.

They also had to be within an ellipse of at least 1 square kilometer (six-tenths of a square mile) in diameter due to uncertainties in navigation as well as many other factors.

“For each possible zone, important questions must be asked: Will the lander be able to maintain regular communications with Rosetta? How common are surface hazards such as large boulders, deep crevasses or steep slopes? Is there sufficient illumination for scientific operations and enough sunlight to recharge the lander’s batteries beyond its initial 64-hour lifetime, while not so much as to cause overheating?” according to ESA.

Stephan Ulamec, Philae Lander Manager at DLR (German Aerospace Center) discusses landing during ESA webcast of Rosetta’s arrival at comet  Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Credit: ESA
Stephan Ulamec, Philae Lander Manager at DLR (German Aerospace Center) discusses landing during ESA webcast of Rosetta’s arrival at comet Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Credit: ESA

The Landing Site Selection Group (LSSG) team was comprised of engineers and scientists from Philae’s Science, Operations and Navigation Centre (SONC) at CNES, the Lander Control Centre (LCC) at DLR, scientists representing the Philae Lander instruments as well as the ESA Rosetta team, which includes representatives from science, operations and flight dynamics.

“Based on the particular shape and the global topography of Comet 67P/ Churyumov-Gerasimenko, it is probably no surprise that many locations had to be ruled out,” said Ulamec.

“The candidate sites that we want to follow up for further analysis are thought to be technically feasible on the basis of a preliminary analysis of flight dynamics and other key issues – for example they all provide at least six hours of daylight per comet rotation and offer some flat terrain. Of course, every site has the potential for unique scientific discoveries.”

When Rosetta arrived on Aug. 6, it was initially orbiting at a distance of about 100 km (62 miles) in front of the comet. Carefully timed thruster firings then brought it to within about 80 km distance. And it is moving far closer – to within 50 kilometers (31 miles) and even closer!

Upon arrival the comet was 522 million km from the Sun. As Rosetta escorts the comet looping around the sun, they move much closer. By landing time in mid-November they are only about 450 million km (280 million mi) from the sun.

At closest approach on 13 August 2015 the comet and Rosetta will be 185 million km from the Sun. That corresponds to an eightfold increase in the light received from the Sun.

Five candidate sites were identified on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko for Rosetta’s Philae lander.   The approximate locations of the five regions are marked on these OSIRIS narrow-angle camera images taken on 16 August from a distance of about 100 km. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Five candidate sites were identified on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko for Rosetta’s Philae lander. The approximate locations of the five regions are marked on these OSIRIS narrow-angle camera images taken on 16 August 2014 from a distance of about 100 km. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Therefore Rosetta and Philae will simultaneously study the warming effects of the sun as the comet outgases dust, water and much more.

The short period Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko has an orbital period of 6.5 years.

“The comet is very different to anything we’ve seen before, and exhibits spectacular features still to be understood,” says Jean-Pierre Bibring, a lead lander scientist and principal investigator of the CIVA instrument.

“The five chosen sites offer us the best chance to land and study the composition, internal structure and activity of the comet with the ten lander experiments.”

A close-up view of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko taken by the Rosetta spacecraft on Aug. 7, 2014. Credit:  ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
A close-up view of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko taken by the Rosetta spacecraft on Aug. 7, 2014. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

The ‘Top 5’ zones will be ranked by 14 September. Three are on the ‘head’ and two are on the ‘body’ of the bizarre two lobed alien world.

And a backup landing site will also be chosen for planning purposes and to develop landing sequences.

The ultimate selection of the primary landing site is slated for 14 October after consultation between ESA and the lander team on a “Go/No Go” decision.

The three-legged lander will fire two harpoons and use ice screws to anchor itself to the 4 kilometer (2.5 mile) wide comet’s surface. Philae will collect stereo and panoramic images and also drill 23 centimeters into and sample its incredibly varied surface.

Why study comets?

Comets are leftover remnants from the formation of the solar system. Scientists believe they delivered a vast quantity of water to Earth. They may have also seeded Earth with organic molecules – the building blocks of life as we know it.

Any finding of organic molecules will be a major discovery for Rosetta and ESA and inform us about the origin of life on Earth.

Read an Italian language version of this story by my imaging partner Marco Di Lorenzo – here

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Holger Sierks, OSIRIS principal investigator, discusses spectacular hi res comet images returned so far by Rosetta during the Aug. 6 ESA webcast from mission control at ESOC, Darmstadt, Germany. Credit: Roland Keller
Holger Sierks, OSIRIS principal investigator, discusses spectacular hi res comet images returned so far by Rosetta during the Aug. 6 ESA webcast from mission control at ESOC, Darmstadt, Germany. Credit: Roland Keller
ESA’s Rosetta Spacecraft nears final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in late July 2014. This collage of imagery from Rosetta combines Navcam camera images at right taken nearing final approach from July 25 (3000 km distant) to July 31, 2014 (1327 km distant), with OSIRIS wide angle camera image at left of comet’s expanding coma cloud on July 25. Images to scale and contrast enhanced to show further detail. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/OSIRIS/MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA   Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
ESA’s Rosetta Spacecraft nears final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in late July 2014. This collage of imagery from Rosetta combines Navcam camera images at right taken nearing final approach from July 25 (3000 km distant) to July 31, 2014 (1327 km distant), with OSIRIS wide angle camera image at left of comet’s expanding coma cloud on July 25. Images to scale and contrast enhanced to show further detail. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/OSIRIS/MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

Read my Rosetta series here:

Rosetta Moving Closer to Comet 67P Hunting for Philae Landing Site


Coma Dust Collection Science starts for Rosetta at Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko

What’s Ahead for Rosetta – ‘Finding a Landing Strip’ on Bizarre Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko

Rosetta Arrives at ‘Scientific Disneyland’ for Ambitious Study of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko after 10 Year Voyage

Rosetta on Final Approach to Historic Comet Rendezvous – Watch Live Here

Rosetta Probe Swoops Closer to Comet Destination than ISS is to Earth and Reveals Exquisite Views

Rosetta Orbiter less than 500 Kilometers from Comet 67P Following Penultimate Trajectory Burn

Rosetta Closing in on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko after Decade Long Chase

James Webb Space Telescope’s Pathfinder Mirror Backplane Arrives at NASA Goddard for Critical Assembly Testing

The central piece of the “pathfinder” backplane that will hold all the mirrors for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has arrived at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland for critical assembly testing on vital parts of the mammoth telescope.

The pathfinder backplane arrived at Goddard in July and has now been hoisted in place onto a huge assembly stand inside Goddard’s giant cleanroom where many key elements of JWST are being assembled and tested ahead of the launch scheduled for October 2018.

The absolutely essential task of JWST’s backplane is to hold the telescopes 18 segment, 21-foot-diameter primary mirror nearly motionless while floating in the utterly frigid space environment, thereby enabling the telescope to peer out into deep space for precise science gathering measurements never before possible.

Over the next several months, engineers will practice installing two spare primary mirror segments and one spare secondary mirror onto the center part of the backplane.

JWST is being assembled here inside the world’s largest clean room at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. Primary mirror segments stored in silver colored containers at top left. Technicians practice mirror installation on test piece of backplane (known as the BSTA or Backplane Stability Test Article) at center, 3 hexagonals.  Telescope assembly bays at right.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
JWST pathfinder backplane has arrived here at NASA Goddard clean room.
JWST is being assembled here inside the world’s largest clean room at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. Primary mirror segments stored in silver colored containers at top left. Technicians practice mirror installation on test piece of backplane (known as the BSTA or Backplane Stability Test Article) at center, 3 hexagonals. Pathfinder backplane has been hoisted into telescope assembly bays at right. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

The purpose is to gain invaluable experience practicing the delicate procedures required to precisely install the hexagonal shaped mirrors onto the actual flight backplane unit after it arrives.

The telescopes primary and secondary flight mirrors have already arrived at Goddard.

The mirrors must remained precisely aligned in space in order for JWST to successfully carry out science investigations. While operating at extraordinarily cold temperatures between -406 and -343 degrees Fahrenheit the backplane must not move more than 38 nanometers, approximately 1/1,000 the diameter of a human hair.

The backplane and every other component must function and unfold perfectly and to precise tolerances in space because JWST has not been designed for servicing or repairs by astronaut crews voyaging beyond low-Earth orbit into deep space, William Ochs, Associate Director for JWST at NASA Goddard told me in an interview during a visit to JWST at Goddard.

Watch this video showing movement of the pathfinder backplane into the Goddard cleanroom.

Video Caption: This is a time-lapse video of the center section of the ‘pathfinder’ backplane for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope being moved into the clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn

The actual flight backplane is comprised of three segments – the main central segment and a pair of outer wing-like parts which will be folded over into launch configuration inside the payload fairing of the Ariane V ECA booster rocket. The telescope will launch from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana in 2018.

Both the backplane flight unit and the pathfinder unit, which consists only of the center part, are being assembled and tested by prime contractor Northrop Grumman in Redondo Beach, California.

Gold coated flight spare of a JWST primary mirror segment made of beryllium and used for test operations inside the NASA Goddard clean room.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
Gold coated flight spare of a JWST primary mirror segment made of beryllium and used for test operations inside the NASA Goddard clean room. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

The test unit was then loaded into a C-5, flown to the U.S. Air Force’s Joint Base Andrews in Maryland and unloaded for transport by trailer truck to NASA Goddard in Greenbelt, Maryland.

JWST is the successor to the 24 year old Hubble Space Telescope and will become the most powerful telescope ever sent to space.

Webb is designed to look at the first light of the Universe and will be able to peer back in time to when the first stars and first galaxies were forming.

A comparison of the primary mirror used by Hubble and the primary mirror array used by the James Webb Space Telescope. Photo Credit: NASA
A comparison of the primary mirror used by Hubble and the primary mirror array used by the James Webb Space Telescope. Photo Credit: NASA

The Webb Telescope is a joint international collaborative project between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

NASA has overall responsibility and Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor for JWST.

Read my story about the recent unfurling test of JWST’s sunshade – here.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

The Webb telescope backplane "pathfinder" or practice-model was unloaded from a C-5 aircraft at the U.S. Air Force's Joint Base Andrews in Maryland.   Image Credit:   NASA/Desiree Stover
The Webb telescope backplane “pathfinder” or practice-model was unloaded from a C-5 aircraft at the U.S. Air Force’s Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. Image Credit: NASA/Desiree Stover

Artist’s concept of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) with Sunshield at bottom.  Credit: NASA/ESA
Artist’s concept of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) with Sunshield at bottom. Credit: NASA/ESA

Coma Dust Collection Science starts for Rosetta at Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko

With the historic arrival of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft at destination Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko flawlessly accomplished on August 6, 2014 after a decade long journey, ground breaking up close science at this bizarre world has begun while the team diligently and simultaneously searches for a landing site for the attached Philae comet lander.

Rosetta started collecting cometary dust from the coma encircling the comet’s nucleus with the onboard COSIMA instrument on Sunday, August 10, 2014 as the spacecraft orbits around and ahead of the icy wanderer from a distance of approximately 100 kilometers (62 miles). See coma image below.

Hopes are high that unprecedented science discoveries await at this alien world described as a “Scientific Disneyland,” by Mark McCaughrean, senior scientific adviser to ESA’s Science Directorate, during ESA’s live arrival day webcast. “It’s just astonishing.”

COSIMA stands for Cometary Secondary Ion Mass Analyser and is one of Rosetta’s suite of 11 state-of-the-art science instruments with a combined mass of 165 kg.

Its purpose is to conduct the first “in situ” analysis of the grains of dust particles emitted from the comets nucleus and determine their physical and chemical characteristics, including whether they are organic or inorganic – in essence what is cometary dust material made of and how it differs from the surface composition.

COSIMA will collect the coma dust using 24 specially designed ‘target holders’ – the first of which was opened to study the comets environment on Aug. 10. Since the comet is not especially active right now, the team plans to keep the target holder open for at least a month and check the progress of any particle collections on a weekly basis.

COSISCOPE image of the first target taken on 19 July 2014 (before the exposure, on 10 August, for cometary dust collection). The 1x1 cm target consists of a gold plate covered with a thin layer (30 µm) of gold nanoparticles (“gold black”). Illumination is by two LEDs, from the right side in this case. The bright dots on the vertical strip on the right side are used for target identification and for defining the coordinate system. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for COSIMA Team MPS/CSNSM/UNIBW/TUORLA/IWF/IAS/ESA/BUW/MPE/LPC2E/LCM/FMI/UTU/LISA/UOFC/vH&S
COSISCOPE image of the first target taken on 19 July 2014 (before the exposure, on 10 August, for cometary dust collection). The 1×1 cm target consists of a gold plate covered with a thin layer (30 µm) of gold nanoparticles (“gold black”). Illumination is by two LEDs, from the right side in this case. The bright dots on the vertical strip on the right side are used for target identification and for defining the coordinate system. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for COSIMA Team MPS/CSNSM/UNIBW/TUORLA/IWF/IAS/ESA/BUW/MPE/LPC2E/LCM/FMI/UTU/LISA/UOFC/vH&S

In fact the team says the coma environment “is still comparable to a high-quality cleanroom”at this time.

But everyone expects that to change radically as Rosetta continues escorting Comet 67P as it loops around the sun, getting closer and warming the surface every day and until reaching perihelion in August 2015.

COSIMA is managed by the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (Max-Planck-Institut für Sonnensystemforschung ) in Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany, with Principal Investigator Martin Hilchenbach.

There are also substantial contributions from the Institut d’Astrophysique Spatiale in France, Finnish Meteorological Institute, Osterreichisches Forschungszentrum Seibersdorf and more.

The target holders measure about one square centimeter and were developed by the Universität der Bundeswehr in Germany.

Each of these targets measures one square centimeter and is comprised of a gold plate covered with a thin 30 µm layer of gold nanoparticles (“gold black”) which the team says should “decelerate and capture cometary dust particles impacting with velocities of ~100 m/s.”

The target will be illuminated by a pair of LED’s to find the dust particles. The particles will be analyzed by COSIMA’s built in mass spectrometer after being located on the target holder by the French supplied COSISCOPE microscopic camera and ionized by a beam of indium ions.

Photo of the COSIMA (Cometary Secondary Ion Mass Analyser) instrument on Rosetta.  Credit: Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research/ESA
Photo of the COSIMA (Cometary Secondary Ion Mass Analyser) instrument on Rosetta. Credit: Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research/ESA

The team expects any grains found on the first target to be analyzed by mid-September 2014.

“COSIMA uses the method of Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometry. They will be fired at with a beam of Indium ions. This will spark individual ions (we say secondary ions) from their surfaces, which will then be analysed with COSIMA’s mass spectrometer,” according to a description from the COSIMA team.

The mass spec has the capability to analyze the elemental composition in an atomic mass range of 1 to 4000 atomic mass units, determine isotopic abundances of some key elements, characterize organic components and functional groups, and conduct mineralic and petrographic characterization of the inorganic phases, all of which will inform as as never before about solar system chemistry.

Comets are leftover remnants from the formation of the solar system. Scientists believe they delivered a vast quantity of water to Earth. They may have also seeded Earth with organic molecules – the building blocks of life as we know it.

Any finding of organic molecules and their identification by COSIMA will be a major discovery for Rosetta and ESA and inform us about the origin of life on Earth.

Data obtained so far from Rosetta’s VIRTIS instrument indicates the comets surface is too hot to be covered in ice and must instead have a dark, dusty crust.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

…….

Read my Rosetta series here:

What’s Ahead for Rosetta – ‘Finding a Landing Strip’ on Bizarre Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko

Rosetta Arrives at ‘Scientific Disneyland’ for Ambitious Study of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko after 10 Year Voyage

Rosetta on Final Approach to Historic Comet Rendezvous – Watch Live Here

Rosetta Probe Swoops Closer to Comet Destination than ISS is to Earth and Reveals Exquisite Views

Rosetta Orbiter less than 500 Kilometers from Comet 67P Following Penultimate Trajectory Burn

Rosetta Closing in on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko after Decade Long Chase

ESA’s Rosetta Spacecraft nears final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in late July 2014. This collage of imagery from Rosetta combines Navcam camera images at right taken nearing final approach from July 25 (3000 km distant) to July 31, 2014 (1327 km distant), with OSIRIS wide angle camera image at left of comet’s expanding coma cloud on July 25. Images to scale and contrast enhanced to show further detail. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/OSIRIS/MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA   Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
ESA’s Rosetta Spacecraft nears final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in late July 2014. This collage of imagery from Rosetta combines Navcam camera images at right taken nearing final approach from July 25 (3000 km distant) to July 31, 2014 (1327 km distant), with OSIRIS wide angle camera image at left of comet’s expanding coma cloud on July 25. Images to scale and contrast enhanced to show further detail. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/OSIRIS/MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

What’s Ahead for Rosetta – ‘Finding a Landing Strip’ on Bizarre Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko

Where would you land here?
Newly released NAVCAM image taken by Rosetta on 5 August 2014 from a distance of about 145 km from comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Image has been rotated 180 degrees. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM[/caption]

Following the flawless and history making arrival of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft at its long sought destination of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on Wednesday, Aug. 6, the goal of conducting ground breaking science at this utterly alien and bizarre icy wanderer that looks like a ‘Scientific Disneyland’ can actually begin.

Rosetta is the first spacecraft in history to rendezvous with a comet and enter orbit – after a more than 10 year chase of 6.4 billion kilometers (4 Billion miles) along a highly complex trajectory from Earth. The arrival event was broadcast live from mission control at ESA’s spacecraft operations centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany. Read my complete arrival story – here.

So what’s ahead for Rosetta? Another audacious and history making event – Landing on the comet!

A top priority task is also another highly complex task – ‘Finding a landing strip’ on the bizarre world of Comet 67P for the piggybacked Philae comet lander equipped with 10 science instruments.

“The challenge ahead is to map the surface and find a landing strip,” said Andrea Accomazzo, ESA Rosetta Spacecraft Operations Manager, at the Aug. 6 ESA webcast.

That will be no easy task based on the spectacular imagery captured by the OSIRIS high resolution science camera and the Navcam camera that has revealed an utterly wacky and incredibly differentiated world like none other we have ever visited or expected when the mission was conceived.

Magnificently detailed new navcam images were released by ESA today, Aug, 7, streaming back to Earth across some 405 million kilometers (250 million miles) of interplanetary space – see above and below.

The team will have its hand full trying to find a safe spot for touchdown.

“We now see lots of structure and details. Lots of topography is visible on the surface,” said Holger Sierks, principal investigator for Rosetta’s OSIRIS camera from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Gottingen, Germany, during the webcast.

“There is a big depression and 150 meter high cliffs, rubble piles, and also we see smooth areas and plains. It’s really fantastic”

“We see a village of house size boulders. Some about 10 meters in size and bigger and they vary in brightness. And some with sharp edges. We don’t know their composition yet,” explained Sierks.

NAVCAM image taken on 6 August 2014 from a distance of about 96 km from comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.   Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM
Newly released NAVCAM image taken on 6 August 2014 from a distance of about 96 km from comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM

The key to finding a safe landing site for Philae will be quickly conducting a global comet mapping campaign with OSIRIS, Navcam and the remaining suite of 11 science instruments to provide a detailed scientific study of the physical characteristics and chemical composition of the surface.

They also need to determine which areas are hard or soft.

Holger Sierks, OSIRIS principal investigator, discuss spectacular hi res comet images returned so far by Rosetta during the Aug. 6 ESA webcast from mission control at ESOC, Darmstadt, Germany. Credit: Roland Keller
Holger Sierks, OSIRIS principal investigator, discusses spectacular hi res comet images returned so far by Rosetta during the Aug. 6 ESA webcast from mission control at ESOC, Darmstadt, Germany. Credit: Roland Keller

“Our first clear views of the comet have given us plenty to think about,” says Matt Taylor, ESA’s Rosetta project scientist.

“Is this double-lobed structure built from two separate comets that came together in the Solar System’s history, or is it one comet that has eroded dramatically and asymmetrically over time? Rosetta, by design, is in the best place to study one of these unique objects.”

The image of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko was taken by Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on 3 August 2014 from a distance of 285 km.   Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
The image of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko was taken by Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on 3 August 2014 from a distance of 285 km. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Yesterday’s (Aug. 6) critical final thruster firing placed the 1.3 Billion euro robotic emissary from Earth into a triangular shaped orbit about 100 kilometers (62 miles) above and in front of the comet’s incredibly varied surface.

Therefore the initial mapping will be conducted from the 100 km (62 mi.) standoff distance.

Since the landing is currently targeted for November 11, 2014, in barely three months time there is not a moment to waste.

“Over the next few months, in addition to characterizing the comet nucleus and setting the bar for the rest of the mission, we will begin final preparations for another space history first: landing on a comet,” says Taylor.

The team will identify up to five possible landing sites by late August and expect to choose the primary site by mid-September.

Then the team has to plan and build the programming and maneuvers for the final timeline to implement the sequence of events leading to the nailbiting landing.

With Rosetta now travelling in a series of 100 kilometer-long (62 mile-long) triangular arcs in front of the comet lasting about 3 days each, it will also be firing thrusters at each apex.

After catching up with the comet Rosetta will slightly overtake and enter orbit from the ‘front’ of the comet as both the spacecraft and 67P/CG move along their orbits around the Sun. Rosetta will carry out a complex series of manoeuvres to reduce the separation between the spacecraft and comet from around 100 km to 25-30 km. From this close orbit, detailed mapping will allow scientists to determine the landing site for the mission’s Philae lander. Immediately prior to the deployment of Philae in November, Rosetta will come to within just 2.5 km of the comet’s nucleus.  This animation is not to scale; Rosetta’s solar arrays span 32 m, and the comet is approximately 4 km wide.  Credit: ESA–C. Carreau
After catching up with the comet Rosetta will slightly overtake and enter orbit from the ‘front’ of the comet as both the spacecraft and 67P/CG move along their orbits around the Sun. Rosetta will carry out a complex series of manoeuvres to reduce the separation between the spacecraft and comet from around 100 km to 25-30 km. From this close orbit, detailed mapping will allow scientists to determine the landing site for the mission’s Philae lander. Immediately prior to the deployment of Philae in November, Rosetta will come to within just 2.5 km of the comet’s nucleus. This animation is not to scale; Rosetta’s solar arrays span 32 m, and the comet is approximately 4 km wide. Credit: ESA–C. Carreau

But it will also gradually edge closer over the next six weeks to about 50 km distance and then even closer to lower Rosetta’s altitude about Comet 67P until the spacecraft is captured by the comet’s gravity.

In November 2014, Rosetta will attempt another historic first when it deploys the Philae science lander from an altitude of just about 2.5 kilometers above the comet for the first ever attempt to land on a comet’s nucleus.

The three-legged lander will fire harpoons and use ice screws to anchor itself to the 4 kilometer (2.5 mile) wide comet’s surface. Philae will collect stereo and panoramic images and also drill into and sample its incredibly varied surface.

How will Philae land?

Stefan Ulamec, Philae Lander Manager from the German Aerospace Center (DLR) talked about the challenges of landing in a low gravity environment during the ESA webcast.

“The touchdown will be at a speed of just 1 m/s,” Ulamec explained. “This is like walking and bouncing against a wall.”

Details in an upcoming story!

Why study comets?

Comets are leftover remnants from the formation of the solar system. Scientists believe they delivered a vast quantity of water to Earth. They may have also seeded Earth with organic molecules.

ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft on final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in early August 2014. This collage of navcam imagery from Rosetta was taken on Aug. 1, 2, 3 and 4 from distances of 1026 km, 500 km, 300 km and 234 km. Not to scale.  Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM - Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft on final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in early August 2014. This collage of navcam imagery from Rosetta was taken on Aug. 1, 2, 3 and 4 from distances of 1026 km, 500 km, 300 km and 234 km. Not to scale. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Rosetta, Curiosity, Opportunity, Orion, SpaceX, Boeing, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, MAVEN, MOM, Mars and more Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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Read my Rosetta series here:

Rosetta Arrives at ‘Scientific Disneyland’ for Ambitious Study of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko after 10 Year Voyage

Rosetta on Final Approach to Historic Comet Rendezvous – Watch Live Here

Rosetta Probe Swoops Closer to Comet Destination than ISS is to Earth and Reveals Exquisite Views

Rosetta Orbiter less than 500 Kilometers from Comet 67P Following Penultimate Trajectory Burn

Rosetta Closing in on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko after Decade Long Chase

ESA’s Rosetta Spacecraft nears final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in late July 2014. This collage of imagery from Rosetta combines Navcam camera images at right taken nearing final approach from July 25 (3000 km distant) to July 31, 2014 (1327 km distant), with OSIRIS wide angle camera image at left of comet’s expanding coma cloud on July 25. Images to scale and contrast enhanced to show further detail. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/OSIRIS/MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA   Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
ESA’s Rosetta Spacecraft nears final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in late July 2014. This collage of imagery from Rosetta combines Navcam camera images at right taken nearing final approach from July 25 (3000 km distant) to July 31, 2014 (1327 km distant), with OSIRIS wide angle camera image at left of comet’s expanding coma cloud on July 25. Images to scale and contrast enhanced to show further detail. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/OSIRIS/MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer