China Plans Space Telescope That Will Dock With Their Space Station

Will China's new space telescope out-perform the Hubble? Image:

China has plans to build a new space telescope which should outperform Hubble. According to the Chinese English Language Daily, the new telescope will be similar to Hubble, but will have a field of view that is 300 times larger. The new telescope, which has not been named yet, will have the ability to dock with China’s modular space station, the Tiangong.

The China National Space Administration has come up with a solution to a problem that dogged the Hubble Telescope. Whenever the Hubble needed repairs or maintenance, a shuttle mission had to be planned so astronauts could service it. China will avoid this problem with its innovative solution. The Chinese telescope will keep its distance from the Tiangong, but if repairs or maintenance are needed, it can dock with Tiangong.

No date has been given for the launch of this new telescope, but its plans must be intertwined with plans for the modular Tiangong space station. Tiangong-1 was launched in 2011 and has served as a crewed laboratory and a technological test-bed. The Tiangong-2, which has room for a crew of 3 and life support for twenty days, is expected to be launched sometime in 2016. The Tiangong-3 will provide life support for 3 people for 40 days and will expand China’s capabilities in space. It’s not expected to launch until sometime in the 2020’s, so the space telescope will likely follow its launch.

An artist's rendering of the Tiangong-1 module, China's space station, which was launched to space in September, 2011. To the right is a Shenzhou spacecraft, preparing to dock with the module. Image Credit: CNSA
An artist’s rendering of the Tiangong-1 module, China’s space station, which was launched to space in September, 2011. To the right is a Shenzhou spacecraft, preparing to dock with the module. Image Credit: CNSA

The telescope, according to the People’s Daily Online, will take 10 years to capture images of 40% of space, with a precision equal to Hubble’s. China hopes this data will allow it to make breakthroughs in the understanding of the origin, development, and evolution of the universe.

This all sounds great, but there’s a shortage of facts. When other countries and space agencies announce projects like this, they give dates and timelines, and details about the types of cameras and sensors. They talk about exactly what it is they plan to study and what results they hope to achieve. It’s difficult to say what level of detail has gone into the planning for this space telescope. It’s also difficult to say how the ‘scope will dock with the space station.

It may be that China is nervous about spying and doesn’t want to reveal any technical detail. Or it may be that China likes announcing things that make it look technologically advanced. (China is in a space race with India, and likes to boast of its prowess.) In any case, they’ve been talking about a space telescope for many years now. But a little more information would be nice.

Come on China. Give us more info. We’re not spies. We promise.

Dinosaur Killer Chicxulub Crater To Be Drilled For First Time

An artist's image of an asteroid Impact. Image Credit: University of California Observatories/Don Davis.

All over the Earth, there is a buried layer of sediment rich in iridium called the Cretaceous Paleogene-Boundary (K-Pg.) This sediment is the global signature of the 10-km-diameter asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs—and about 50% of all other species—66 million years ago. Now, in an effort to understand how life recovered after that event, scientists are going to drill down into the site where the asteroid struck—the Chicxulub Crater off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

The end-Cretaceous extinction was a global catastrophe, and a lot is already known about it. We’ve learned a lot about the physical effects of the strike on the impact area from oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. According to data from that drilling, released on February 5th in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth, the asteroid that struck Earth displaced approximately 200,000 cubic km (48,000 cubic miles) of sediment. That’s enough to fill the largest of the Great Lakes—Lake Superior—17 times.

The Chicxulub impact caused earthquakes and tsunamis that first loosened debris, then swept it from nearby areas like present-day Florida and Texas into the Gulf basin itself. This layer is hundreds of meters thick, and is hundreds of kilometers wide. It covers not only the Gulf of Mexico, but also the Caribbean and the Yucatan Peninsula.

In April, a team of scientists from the University of Texas and the National University of Mexico will spend two months drilling in the area, to gain insight into how life recovered after the impact event. Research Professor Sean Gulick of the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics told CNN in an interview that the team already has a hypothesis for what they will find. “We expect to see a period of no life initially, and then life returning and getting more diverse through time.”

Scientists have been wanting to drill in the impact region for some time, but couldn’t because of commercial drilling activity. Allowing this team to study the region directly will build on what is already known: that this enormous deposit of sediment happened over a very short period of time, possibly only a matter of days. The drilling will also help paint a picture of how life recovered by looking at the types of fossils that appear. Some scientists think that the asteroid impact would have lowered the pH of the oceans, so the fossilized remains of animals that can endure greater acidity would be of particular interest.

The Chicxulub impact was a monumental event in the history of the Earth, and it was extremely powerful. It may have been a billion times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Other than the layer of sediment laid down near the site of the impact itself, its global effects probably included widespread forest fires, global cooling from debris in the atmosphere, and then a period of high temperatures caused by an increase in atmospheric CO2.

We already know what will happen if an asteroid this size strikes Earth again—global devastation. But drilling in the area of the impact will tell us a lot about how geological and ecological processes respond to this type of devastation.

 

 

 

 

Chasing the Shadow: Our Guide to the March 9th Total Solar Eclipse

Ready for the ultimate in astronomical events? On the morning of Wednesday, March 9th, the Moon eclipses the Sun for viewers across southeast Asia.

Many intrepid umbraphiles are already in position for the spectacle. The event is the only total solar eclipse of 2016, and the penultimate total solar eclipse prior the ‘Big One’ crossing the continental United States on August 21st, 2017.

Image credit: Great American Eclipse/Michael Zeiler
The path of tomorrow’s eclipse. Image credit: Great American Eclipse/Michael Zeiler

Tales of the Saros

This particular eclipse is member 52 of 73 eclipses in saros cycle 130, which runs from 1096 AD to 2394. If you saw the total solar eclipse which crossed South America on February 26th, 1998, then you caught the last solar eclipse from the same cycle.

Image credit: NASA/GSFC/A.T. Sinclair
An animation of the event. Image credit: NASA/GSFC/A.T. Sinclair

Weather prospects are dicey along the eclipse track, as March is typically the middle of monsoon season for southeast Asia. Most eclipse chasers have headed to the islands of Indonesia or cruises based nearby to witness the event. The point of greatest eclipse lies off of the southeastern coast of the Philippine Islands in the South China Sea, with a duration of 4 minutes and 10 seconds. Most observers, however, will experience a substantially shorter period of totality. For example, totality lasts only 2 minutes and 35 seconds over island of Ternate, where many eclipse chasers have gathered. The Sun will be 48 degrees above the horizon from the island during totality.

A great place to check cloud cover and weather prospects along the eclipse track is the Eclipsophile website.

Image credit; SkippySky
A dicey sky: prospects for cloud cover over Australia. Image credit; SkippySky

The umbra of the Earth’s Moon will sweep across Sumatra at sunrise and across the island of Borneo, to landfall one last time for Indonesia over the island of North Maluku before sweeping across the central Pacific. This eclipse is unusual in that it makes landfall over a very few countries: the island nation of Indonesia, and just a few scattered atolls in Palau and Micronesia.

Partial phases of the eclipse are also visible from India at sunrise, across northeast Asia along the northernmost track, to central Australia in the south, and finally, to southern Alaskan coast at sunset. Honolulu Hawaii sees a 65% partial solar eclipse in the late afternoon on March 8th.

Expect great views, both from Earth and from space. We typically get images from solar observing spacecraft, to include the joint NASA/JAXA Hinode mission, and the European Space Agency’s PROBA-2 spacecraft. Both are in low-Earth orbit, and see a given eclipse as a swift, fleeting event. Other solar observatories—such as the Solar Heliospheric Observatory and the Solar Dynamics Observatory—occupy a different vantage point in space, and miss the eclipse.

Image credit: Starry Night Education Software
The orientation of the Sun and planets at totality (click to enlarge). Image credit: Starry Night Education Software

As of this writing, we know of several folks that have made the journey to stand in the path of totality, to include Sharin Ahmad (@Shagazer), Michael Zeiler (@GreatAmericanEclipse) and Justin Ng.

Good luck and clear skies to all observers out there, awaiting darkness in the path of totality.

Live in the wrong hemisphere? There are several live webcasts planned from the eclipse zone:

NASA and the National Science Foundation are working with a team from San Francisco’s Exploratorium to bring a live webcast of the eclipse from the remote atoll island of Woleai, Micronesia. The feed starts at 7:00 EST/0:00 Universal Time (UT) and runs for just over three hours. You can follow the exploits of the team leading up to show time here.

The venerable Slooh will also feature a webcast of the eclipse with astronomer Paul Cox from Indonesia running for three hours starting at 6:00 PM EST/23:00 UT.

A view of the partial phases of the eclipse from the Hong Kong science center also starts at 5:30 PM EST/22:30 UT:

Don’t forget: though the eclipse occurs on the morning of March 9th local time in southeast Asia, the path crosses the International Dateline, and the webcasts kick off on the evening of Tuesday March 8th for North America.

And hey, Alaska Airlines flight 870 from Anchorage to Honolulu will divert from its flight plan slightly… just to briefly intercept the Moon’s shadow (its already a fully booked flight!)

From there, 2016 features only two faint penumbral lunar eclipses on March 23rd and September 16th, and an annular solar eclipse crossing central Africa on September 1st.

We’ll be doing a post-eclipse round up, with tales from totality and the pics to prove it… stay tuned!

Got eclipse pictures to share? Send ’em to Universe Today… we just might feature them in our round up!

Don’t miss our eclipse-fueled science fiction tales: Exeligmos and Shadowfall.

SpaceX Falcon 9 Dazzles with Dramatic SES-9 Sunset Launch – Photo/Video Gallery

Ignition and liftoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 as umbilical’s fly away from rocket carrying SES-9 satellite to orbit from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on March 4, 2016. As seen from remote camera set near rocket on launch pad 40.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Ignition and liftoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 as umbilical’s fly away from rocket carrying SES-9 satellite to orbit from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on March 4, 2016. As seen from remote camera set near rocket on launch pad 40. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL – SpaceX’s Falcon 9 finally put on a dazzling sky show after the commercial booster at last took flight on the fifth launch attempt, shortly after sunset on Friday, March 4, 2014.

Launches around sunset are often the most beautiful. And the coincident clear blue and darkening skies did not disappoint, affording photographers the opportunity to capture dramatic photos and videos with brilliant hues as the accelerating rocket sped skywards to sunlight.

The primary mission for the SpaceX Falcon 9 mission was to carry the SES-9 commercial communications satellite payload to orbit providing services used by everyone 24/7, such as cable TV, high speed internet, voice and data transmissions.

SES-9 is the largest satellite dedicated to serving the Asia-Pacific region for the Luxembourg based SES. With its payload of 81 high-powered Ku-band transponder equivalents, SES-9 will be the 7th SES satellite providing unparalleled coverage to over 20 countries in the region, says SES.

Enjoy the gorgeous and expanding collection of launch photos and videos herein from myself, colleagues and friends. The view was so clear that we could see the separation of the first and second stages, and opening and jettisoning of the payload fairing halves.

Strong high altitude winds, difficulties loading the super chilled liquid oxygen propellant and boaters who apparently ignored warnings forced a total of four postponements from the originally intended launch date nearly two weeks earlier on Tuesday Feb. 25, 2016.

But with a forecast of 90 percent GO weather and moderating upper altitude wind, the SpaceX Falcon 9 soared aloft right at the opening of the launch window.

See the ignition and liftoff and initial powerful puff of exhaust up close – from my remote launch pad 40 camera above as pyros fire and the umbilicals separate and fly away from rocket.

Here’s a pair of time lapse streak shots as the rocket arcs over eastwards to Africa:

SpaceX Falcon 9 and SES-9 streak to orbit in this long time exposure image after liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on March 4, 2016.  Credit: Walter Scriptunis II
SpaceX Falcon 9 and SES-9 streak to orbit in this long time exposure image after liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on March 4, 2016. Credit: Walter Scriptunis II
SpaceX Falcon 9 and SES-9 streak to orbit in this long time exposure image after liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on March 4, 2016.  Credit: SpaceX/Ben Cooper
SpaceX Falcon 9 and SES-9 streak to orbit in this long time exposure image after liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on March 4, 2016. Credit: SpaceX/Ben Cooper

Check out these pair of launch videos taken by Mobius wide angle remote cameras set up close around the SpaceX pad at Space Launch Complex 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.

Video caption: Sunset launch of the SES-9 communication satellite by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on March 4, 2016 from Pad 40 of the CCAFS. Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

Video caption: Spectacular blastoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying SES-9 communications satellite from Space Launch Complex 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL shortly after sunset at 6:35 p.m. EST on March 4, 2016. Up close movie captured by Mobius remote video camera placed at launch pad. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

This video is a focused up close view showing the umbilicals flying away moments after blastoff:

Video caption: Time lapse, SpaceX Falcon 9 strong back and upper umbilical motion before and during the launch of the SES9 telecommunication satellite launch on March 4, 2016. Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

The SES-9 launch marked the second successful Falcon-9 launch in a row during 2016, and the first of this year from Cape Canaveral.

The Boeing built SES-9 satellite has a dry mass of 2,835 kg and a fueled mass of 5,271 kg. The huge satellite sports a wingspan of 48 meters with two solar wings. In addition each wing is outfitted with six additional solar panels on each wing.

Watch for Ken’s onsite launch reports direct from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

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

Ken Kremer

SpaceX SES-9 launch from Cape Canaveral AFS, FL on March 4, 2016.  Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now
SpaceX SES-9 launch from Cape Canaveral AFS, FL on March 4, 2016. Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now
SpaceX Falcon 9 and SES-9 streak across the sunset sky after blastoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on March 4, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 and SES-9 streak across the sunset sky after blastoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on March 4, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 and SES-9 streak across the sunset sky after blastoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on March 4, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 and SES-9 streak across the sunset sky after blastoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on March 4, 2016. Credit: Julian Leek
SpaceX SES-9 launch from Cape Canaveral AFS, FL on March 4, 2016.    SEKORAPHOTO  / J.D. Sekora
SpaceX SES-9 launch from Cape Canaveral AFS, FL on March 4, 2016. Credit: SEKORAPHOTO / J.D. Sekora
SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets to orbit carrying SES-9 communications satellite from Space Launch Complex 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets to orbit carrying SES-9 communications satellite from Space Launch Complex 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
First and second stages separate as SpaceX Falcon 9 accelerates to orbit with SES-9 telecom satellite after liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on March 4, 2016.    Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
First and second stages separate as SpaceX Falcon 9 accelerates to orbit with SES-9 telecom satellite after liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on March 4, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX SES-9 launch from Cape Canaveral AFS, FL as seen from Titusville, FL on March 4, 2016.  Credit: Joseph Carrillo
SpaceX SES-9 launch from Cape Canaveral AFS, FL as seen from Titusville, FL on March 4, 2016. Credit: Joseph Carrillo
SpaceX SES-9 launch from Cape Canaveral AFS, FL as seen from Titusville, FL on March 4, 2016.  Credit: Dawn McFall
SpaceX SES-9 launch from Cape Canaveral AFS, FL as seen from Titusville, FL on March 4, 2016. Credit: Dawn McFall
SpaceX SES-9 launch from Cape Canaveral AFS, FL as seen from Titusville, FL on March 4, 2016.  Credit: Gerald DaBose
SpaceX SES-9 launch from Cape Canaveral AFS, FL as seen from Titusville, FL on March 4, 2016. Credit: Gerald DaBose

Dark Stains on Mercury Reveal Its Ancient Crust

Ever since the MESSENGER spacecraft entered orbit around Mercury in 2011, and indeed even since Mariner 10‘s flyby in 1974, peculiar “dark spots” observed on the planet’s surface have intrigued scientists as to their composition and origin. Now, thanks to high-resolution spectral data acquired by MESSENGER during the last few months of its mission, researchers have confirmed that Mercury’s dark spots contain a form of carbon called graphite, excavated from the planet’s original, ancient crust.

Continue reading “Dark Stains on Mercury Reveal Its Ancient Crust”

Russian Crowdfunded Satellite May Soon Become Brightest “Star” in the Sky

Artist’s view of the proposed Mayak (Beacon) satellite fully unfurled and orbiting Earth. Credit: cosmomayak.ru / Mayak Project

We may soon look up and see a satellite brighter than the space station and even Venus gliding across the night sky if a Russian crowdfunding effort succeeds. An enthusiastic team of students from Moscow University of Mechanical Engineering are using Boomstarter, the Russian equivalent of Kickstarter, to raise the money needed to build and launch a pyramid-shaped satellite made of highly reflective material they’re calling Mayak, Russian for “Beacon”.


Young engineers at Moscow University explain the Mayak Project

To date they’ve collected more than $23,000 or 1.7 million rubles. Judging from the video, the team has built the canister that would hold the satellite (folded up inside) and performed a high-altitude test using a balloon. If funding is secured, Beacon is scheduled to launch on a Soyuz-2 rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the second quarter of this year.

Illustration of the “Beacon” unfurling from its canister when it reaches orbit. The Mayak Project used the Russian version of Kickstarter called Boomstarter to fund the project. Credit: cosmomayak.ru / Mayak Project
Illustration of the “Beacon” inflating from its canister after reaching orbit. The Mayak Project used the Russian version of Kickstarter called Boomstarter to fund the project. Credit: cosmomayak.ru / Mayak Project

Once in orbit, Beacon will inflate into a pyramid with a surface area of 172 square feet (16 square meters). Made of reflective metallized film 20 times thinner than a human hair, the satellite is expected to become the brightest man-made object in orbit ever. That title is currently held by the International Space Station which can shine as brightly as magnitude -3 or about three times fainter than Venus. The brightest satellites, the Iridiums, can flare to magnitude -8 (as bright as the crescent moon) but only for a few seconds before fading back to invisibility. They form a “constellation” of  some 66 satellites that provide data and voice communications.

A student at the Mayak Lab in Moscow describes the container used to hold the reflective "Beacon" satellite. Credit:
A student at the Mayak Lab in Moscow describes the container used to hold the reflective “Beacon” satellite. Credit: cosmomayak.ru / Mayak Project

A concurrently-developed mobile app would allow users to know when Beacon would pass over a particular location. The students hope to achieve more than just track a bright, moving light across the sky. According to their website, the goal of the project is the “popularization of astronautics and space research in Russia, as well as improving the attractiveness of science and technology education among young people.” They want to show that almost anyone can build and send a spacecraft into orbit, not just corporations and governments.

Further, the students hope to test aerodynamic braking in the atmosphere and find out more about the density of air at orbital altitudes. Interested donors can give anywhere from 300 rubles (about $5) up 300,000 ($4,000). The more money, the more access you’ll have to the group and news of the satellite’s progress; the top donor will get invited to watch the launch on-site.

Moscow University students release the satellite on a test run. Credit: cosmomayak.ru / Mayak Project
Liftoff! Moscow University students release the satellite on a test run. Credit: cosmomayak.ru / Mayak Project

Once finished with the Mayak Project, the team wants to built another version that uses that atmosphere for braking its speed and returning it — and future satellites — safely back to Earth without the need for retro-rockets.

I think all these goals are worthy, and I admire the students’ enthusiasm. I only hope that satellite launching doesn’t become so cheap and popular that we end up lighting up the night sky even further. What do you think?

ExoMars 2016 Spacecraft Encapsulated for Red Planet Launch in One Week

The ExoMars 2016 spacecraft composite, comprised of the Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli, seen during the encapsulation within the launcher fairing  at the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Launch to Mars is slated for March 14, 2016.  Copyright: ESA - B. Bethge
The ExoMars 2016 spacecraft composite, comprised of the Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli, seen during the encapsulation within the launcher fairing at the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Launch to Mars is slated for March 14, 2016. Copyright: ESA – B. Bethge

Final launch preparations are now in full swing for the ambitious European/Russian ExoMars 2016 spacecraft which has been encapsulated inside its payload launcher fairing and is slated to blast off for the Red Planet one week from now on March 14, 2016 from Kazakhstan.

On March 2, technicians working at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan completed the complex multiday mating and enclosure operations of the composite ExoMars 2016 spacecraft to the launch vehicle adapter and the Breeze upper stage inside the nose cone.

The ExoMars 2016 mission is comprised of a pair of European spacecraft named the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Schiaparelli lander, built and funded by the European Space Agency (ESA).

“The main objectives of this mission are to search for evidence of methane and other trace atmospheric gases that could be signatures of active biological or geological processes and to test key technologies in preparation for ESA’s contribution to subsequent missions to Mars,” says ESA.

2016’s lone mission to the Red Planet will launch atop a Russian Proton rocket.

The individual orbiter and lander spacecraft were recently mated at Baikonur on February 12.

To prepare for the encapsulation, engineers first tilted the spacecraft horizontally. Then they rolled the first fairing half underneath the spacecraft and Breeze on a track inside the Baikonur cleanroom.

Then they used an overhead crane to carefully lower the second fairing half and maneuver it into place from above to fully encapsulate the precious payload.

Tilting the ExoMars 2016 spacecraft and Breeze upper stage into the horizontal position in preparation of encapsulation within the launcher fairing at the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Launch to Mars is slated for March 14, 2016.  Copyright: ESA - B. Bethge
Tilting the ExoMars 2016 spacecraft and Breeze upper stage into the horizontal position in preparation of encapsulation within the launcher fairing at the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Launch to Mars is slated for March 14, 2016. Copyright: ESA – B. Bethge

The 13.5 foot (4.1-meter) diameter payload fairing holding the ExoMars 2016 spacecraft and Breeze upper stage will next be mated to the Proton rocket and rolled out to the Baikonur launch pad.

The launch window extends until March 25.

The ExoMars 2016 TGO orbiter is equipped with a payload of four science instruments supplied by European and Russian scientists. It will investigate the source and precisely measure the quantity of the methane and other trace gases.

ExoMars 2016 Mission to the Red Planet.  It consists of two spacecraft -  the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM) which will land.  Credit: ESA
ExoMars 2016 Mission to the Red Planet. It consists of two spacecraft – the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM) which will land. Credit: ESA

The 2016 lander will carry an international suite of science instruments and test European entry, descent and landing (EDL) technologies for the 2nd ExoMars mission in 2018.

The battery powered lander is expected to operate for up to eight days.

The 2018 ExoMars mission will deliver an advanced rover to the Red Planet’s surface.

It is equipped with the first ever deep driller that can collect samples to depths of 2 meters where the environment is shielded from the harsh conditions on the surface – namely the constant bombardment of cosmic radiation and the presence of strong oxidants like perchlorates that can destroy organic molecules.

ExoMars was originally a joint NASA/ESA project.

But thanks to hefty cuts to NASA’s budget by Washington DC politicians, NASA was forced to terminate the agencies involvement after several years of extremely detailed work and withdraw from participation as a full partner in the exciting ExoMars missions.

Thereafter Russia agreed to take NASA’s place and provide the much needed funding and rockets for the pair of launches in March 2016 and May 2018.

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

Ken Kremer

Clouds Seen On Pluto For First Time

Recent images sent by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft show possible clouds floating over the frozen landscape including the streaky patch at right. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwR
Recent images sent by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft show possible clouds floating over the frozen landscape including the hazy streak right of center. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

I think we were all blown away when the New Horizons spacecraft looked back at Pluto’s dark side and returned the first photos of a surprisingly complex, layered atmosphere. Colorless nitrogen along with a small percentage of methane make up Pluto’s air. Layers of haze are likely created when the two gases react in sunlight to form tiny, soot-like particles called tholins. These can ultimately grow large enough to settle toward the surface and coat and color Pluto’s icy exterior.

Close up of the back side of Pluto taken by New Horizons shows multiple layers of haze in its mostly nitrogen atmosphere. Credit:
Close up of the back side of Pluto taken by New Horizons shows multiple layers of haze in its mostly nitrogen atmosphere. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Now it seems Pluto’s atmosphere is capable of doing even more — making clouds! In an e-mail exchange with New Scientist, Lowell Observatory astronomer Will Grundy discusses the possibility that streaks and small condensations within the hazes might be individual clouds. Grundy also tracked a feature as it passed over different parts of the Plutonian landscape below, strongly suggesting a cloud.  If confirmed, they’d be the first-ever clouds seen on the dwarf planet, and a sign this small 1,473-mile-wide (2,370 km) orb possesses an even more complex atmosphere than imagined.

Faint arrows along Pluto's limb point to possible clouds in a low altitude haze layer. More distinct possible clouds are arrowed at left. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwR
Faint arrows along Pluto’s limb point to possible clouds in a low altitude haze layer. More distinct possible clouds are arrowed at left. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
The smooth expanse of the informally named Sputnik Planum (right) is flanked to the west (left) by rugged mountains up to 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) high, including the informally named Norgay Montes in the foreground and Hillary Montes on the skyline. The backlighting highlights more than a dozen layers of haze in Pluto's tenuous but distended atmosphere.
15 minutes after its closest approach, New Horizons snapped this image of the smooth expanse of Sputnik Planum (right) flanked to the west (left) by rugged mountains up to 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) high, including the informally named Norgay Montes in the foreground and Hillary Montes on the skyline. The backlighting highlights more than a dozen layers of haze in Pluto’s tenuous but distended atmosphere. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Given the onion-like layers of haze and potential clouds, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprise that it snows on Pluto. The New Horizons team announced the discovery this week of a chain of exotic snowcapped mountains stretching across the dark expanse of the informally named Cthulhu Regio. Cthulhu, pronounced kuh-THU-lu and named for a character in American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft’s books, stretches nearly halfway around Pluto’s equator, starting from the west of the vast nitrogen ice plain, Sputnik Planum. At 1,850 miles (3,000 km) long and 450 miles (750 km) wide, Cthulhu is a bit larger than the state of Alaska. But ever so much colder!

A section of Cthulhu Regio boasts peaks covered in methane frost or snow.
The upper slopes of Cthulhu’s highest peaks are coated with a bright material that contrasts sharply with the dark red color of the surrounding plains. Scientists think it’s methane ice condensed from Pluto’s atmosphere. The far right panel shows the distribution of methane ice on the surface. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Cthulhu’s red color probably comes from a covering of dark tholins formed when methane interacts with sunlight. But new close-up images reveal that the region’s highest mountains appear coated with a much brighter material. Scientists think it’s methane, condensed as ice onto the peaks from Pluto’s atmosphere.

“That this material coats only the upper slopes of the peaks suggests methane ice may act like water in Earth’s atmosphere, condensing as frost at high altitude,” said John Stansberry, a New Horizons science team member.

Compositional data from the New Horizon’s Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), shown in the right panel in the image above, shows that the location of the bright ice on the mountain peaks correlates almost exactly with the distribution of methane ice, shown in false color as purple.

New Horizons still has plenty of images stored on its hard drive, so we’re likely to see more clouds, frosty peaks and gosh-knows-what-else as the probe speeds ever deeper into space while returning daily postcards from its historic encounter.

SpaceX Stuns with Spectacular Sunset Launch of SES-9 Telecom Satellite

Sunset blastoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying SES-9 communications satellite from Space Launch Complex 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Sunset blastoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying SES-9 communications satellite from Space Launch Complex 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on March 4, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL – After enduring four launch scrubs caused by poor weather, misguided boaters, high level winds and propellant fueling problems, SpaceX put on a stunning sky show with tonight’s sunset blastoff of their private Falcon 9 rocket boosting the high powered SES-9 commercial telecommunications satellite to orbit.

For the many spectators who stuck around, the fifth launch attempt proved to be the charm as they were richly rewarded with a spectacular sunset launch that was visible for more than five minutes all around the space coast and far beyond due to crystal clear skies. Continue reading “SpaceX Stuns with Spectacular Sunset Launch of SES-9 Telecom Satellite”