ExoMars Spacecraft Launches to Red Planet Searching for Signs of Life

ExoMars 2016 lifted off on a Proton-M rocket from Baikonur, Kazakhstan at 09:31 GMT on 14 March 2016.   Copyright ESA–Stephane Corvaja, 2016
ExoMars 2016 lifted off on a Proton-M rocket from Baikonur, Kazakhstan at 09:31 GMT on 14 March 2016. Copyright ESA–Stephane Corvaja, 2016

The joint European/Russian ExoMars spacecraft successfully launched early this morning from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan atop a Proton-M rocket at 5:31:42 a.m. EDT (0931:42 GMT), Monday, March 14, with the goal of searching for signs of life on the Red Planet.

After settling into orbit around Mars, it’s instruments will scan for minute signatures of methane gas that could possibly be an indication of life or of nonbiologic geologic processes ongoing today.

The spacecraft is currently circling in a temporary and preliminary parking orbit around Earth following liftoff of the 191-foot-tall (58-meter) Russian-built rocket under overcast skies – awaiting a critical final engine burn placing the probe on an interplanetary trajectory to Mars.

The 9,550-pound (4,332-kilogram) ExoMars 2016 spacecraft continued soaring to orbit after nominal firings of the Proton’s second and third stages and jettisoning of the payload fairing halves protecting the vehicle during ascent through Earth’s atmosphere.

A total of four more burns from the Breeze-M upper stage are required to boost ExoMars higher and propel it outwards on its seven-month-long journey to the Red Planet.

So the excitement and nail biting is not over yet and continues to this moment. The final successful outcome of today’s mission cannot be declared until more than 10 hours after liftoff – after the last firing of the Breeze-M upper stage sets the probe on course for Mars and escaping the tug of Earth’s gravity.

ExoMars 2016 lifted off on a Proton-M rocket from Baikonur, Kazakhstan at 09:31 GMT on 14 March 2016.   Copyright ESA–Stephane Corvaja, 2016
ExoMars 2016 lifted off on a Proton-M rocket from Baikonur, Kazakhstan at 09:31 GMT on 14 March 2016. Copyright ESA–Stephane Corvaja, 2016

The first three Breeze-M fourth stage burns have now been completed as of about 9:40 am EST, according to ESA mission control on Darmstadt, Germany.

The fourth and final ignition of the Breeze-M upper stage and spacecraft separation is slated for after 3 p.m. EDT today, March 14, 2016.

The first acquisition of signal from the spacecraft is expected later at about 5:21:29 p.m. EST (21:29 GMT).

Artists concept of ExoMars spacecraft separation from Breeze fourth stage. Credit: ESA
Artists concept of ExoMars spacecraft separation from Breeze fourth stage. Credit: ESA

The ExoMars 2016 mission is comprised of a joined pair of European-built spacecraft consisting of the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) plus the Schiaparelli entry, descent and landing demonstrator module, built and funded by the European Space Agency (ESA).

The cooperative mission includes significant participation from the Russian space agency Roscosmos who provided the Proton-M launcher, part of the science instrument package, the surface platform and ground station support.

The launch was carried live courtesy of a European Space Agency (ESA) webcast:

http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Space_Science/ExoMars/Watch_ExoMars_launch

ESA is continuing live streaming of the launch events throughout the day as burns continue and events unfold lead up to the critical final burn of the Breeze-M upper stage

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, present at levels of one percent or far less.

On Earth methane can be produced by biology, volcanoes, natural gas and hydrothermal activity. TGO will investigate what makes it on Mars and follow up on measurements from NASA’s Curiosity rover and other space based assets and telescopes.

Martian methane has a lifetime of about 400 years, until it is destroyed by solar UV & mixed by atmosphere, says Jorge Vago, ESA ExoMars 2016 principal scientist.

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 perhaps four and up to eight days until the battery is depleted.

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 (seven feet) 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.

NASA is still providing the critical MOMA science instrument that will search for organic molecules.

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.

TGO will also help search for safe landing sites for the ExoMars 2018 lander and serve as the all important data communication relay station sending signals and science from the rover and surface science platform back to Earth.

ExoMars 2016 is Europe’s most advanced mission to Mars and joins Europe’s still operating Mars Express Orbiter (MEX), which arrived back in 2004, as well as a fleet of NASA and Indian probes.

ExoMars 2016: Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli. Credit:  ESA/ATG medialab
ExoMars 2016: Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli. Credit:
ESA/ATG medialab

The Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and Schiaparelli lander arrive at Mars on October 19, 2016.

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

Ken Kremer

Proton rocket and ExoMars 2016 spacecraft stand vertical at the launch pad at the Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan Copyright: ESA - B. Bethge
Proton rocket and ExoMars 2016 spacecraft stand vertical at the launch pad at the Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan
Copyright: ESA – B. Bethge

Countdown Begins for Blastoff of ExoMars 2016 Spacecraft on March 14 – Watch Live

Proton rocket and ExoMars 2016 spacecraft rolled out to launch pad at the Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan Copyright: ESA - B. Bethge
Proton rocket and ExoMars 2016 spacecraft rolled out to launch pad at the Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan
Copyright: ESA – B. Bethge

The countdown has begun for blastoff of the ambitious European/Russian ExoMars 2016 spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on March 14. Its goal is to search for minute signatures of methane gas that could possibly be an indication of life or of nonbiologic geologic processes ongoing today.

Final launch preparations are now in progress. Liftoff of the powerful Russian Proton booster from Baikonur carrying the ExoMars spacecraft is slated for 5:31:42 a.m. EDT (0931:42 GMT), Monday morning, March 14.

You can watch the launch live courtesy of a European Space Agency (ESA) webcast:

http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Space_Science/ExoMars/Watch_ExoMars_launch

The prelaunch play by play begins with live streaming at 4:30 a.m. EDT (08:30 GMT).

The first acquisition of signal from the spacecrft is expected at 21:29 GMT

As launch and post launch events unfold leading to spacecraft separation, ESA plans additional live streaming events at 7:00 a.m. EDT (11:00 GMT) and 5:10 p.m. (21:10 GMT)

Spacecraft separation from the Breeze upper stage is expected at about 10 hours, 41 minutes.

Artists concept of ExoMars spacecraft separation from Breeze fourth stage. Credit: ESA
Artists concept of ExoMars spacecraft separation from Breeze fourth stage. Credit: ESA

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

Russian is providing the Proton booster and part of the science instrument package.

“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.

Proton rocket and ExoMars 2016 spacecraft stand vertical at the launch pad at the Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan Copyright: ESA - B. Bethge
Proton rocket and ExoMars 2016 spacecraft stand vertical at the launch pad at the Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan
Copyright: ESA – B. Bethge

ExoMars is Earth’s lone mission to the Red Planet following the two year postponement of NASA’s InSight lander from 2016 to 2018 to allow time to fix a defective French-built seismometer.

ESA reported late today , March 13, that at T-minus 12 hours the Trace Gas Orbiter has been successfully switch on, a telemetry link was established and the spacecrft battery charging has been completed.

The Proton rocket with the encapsulated spacecraft bolted atop were rolled out to the Baikonur launch pad on Friday, March 11 and the launcher was raised into the vertical position.

ESA mission controller then completed a full launch dress rehearsal on Saturday, March 12.

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.

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

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

Ken Kremer

18 Billion Solar Mass Black Hole Rotates At 1/3 Speed Of Light

Way up in the constellation Cancer there’s a 14th magnitude speck of light you can claim in a 10-inch or larger telescope. If you saw it, you might sniff at something so insignificant, yet it represents the final farewell of chewed up stars as their remains whirl down the throat of an 18 billion solar mass black hole, one of the most massive known in the universe.

Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. As matter falls toward the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's center, some of it is accelerated outward at nearly the speed of light along jets pointed in opposite directions. When one of the jets happens to be aimed in the direction of Earth, as illustrated here, the galaxy appears especially bright and is classified as a blazar. Credits: M. Weiss/CfA
Artist’s view of a black hole-powered blazar (a type of quasar) lighting up the center of a remote galaxy. As matter falls toward the supermassive black hole at the galaxy’s center, some of it is accelerated outward at nearly the speed of light along jets pointed in opposite directions. When one of the jets happens to be aimed in the direction of Earth, as illustrated here, the galaxy appears especially bright and is classified as a blazar.
Credits: M. Weiss/CfA

Astronomers know the object as OJ 287, a quasar that lies 3.5 billion light years from Earth. Quasars or quasi-stellar objects light up the centers of many remote galaxies. If we could pull up for a closer look, we’d see a brilliant, flattened accretion disk composed of heated star-stuff spinning about the central black hole at extreme speeds.

An illustration of the binary black hole system in OJ287. The predictions of the model are verified by observations. Credit: University of Turku
An illustration of the binary black hole system, OJ 287, showing the massive black hole surrounded by an accretion disk. A second, smaller black hole is believed to orbit the larger. When it intersects the larger’s disk coming and going, astronomers see a pair of bright flares. The predictions of the model are verified by observations. Credit: University of Turku

As matter gets sucked down the hole, jets of hot plasma and energetic light shoot out perpendicular to the disk. And if we’re so privileged that one of those jet happens to point directly at us, we call the quasar a “blazar”. Variability of the light streaming from the heart of a blazar is so constant, the object practically flickers.

Long exposures made with the Hubble Space Telescope showing brilliant quasars flaring in the hearts of six distant galaxies. Credit: NASA/ESA
Long exposures made with the Hubble Space Telescope showing brilliant quasars flaring in the hearts of six distant galaxies. Credit: NASA/ESA

A recent observational campaign involving more than two dozen optical telescopes and NASA’s space based SWIFT X-ray telescope allowed a team of astronomers to measure very accurately the rotational rate the black hole powering OJ 287 at one third the maximum spin rate — about 56,000 miles per second (90,000 kps) —  allowed in General Relativity  A careful analysis of these observations show that OJ 287 has produced close-to-periodic optical outbursts at intervals of approximately 12 years dating back to around 1891. A close inspection of newer data sets reveals the presence of double-peaks in these outbursts.

Illustration of a gradually precessing orbit similar to the precessing orbit of the smaller smaller black hole orbiting the larger in OJ 287. Credit: Willow W / Wikipedia
Illustration of a gradually precessing orbit similar to the precessing orbit of the smaller smaller black hole orbiting the larger in OJ 287. Credit: Willow W / Wikipedia

To explain the blazar’s behavior, Prof. Mauri Valtonen of the University of Turku (Finland) and colleagues developed a model that beautifully explains the data if the quasar OJ 287 harbors not one buy two unequal mass black holes — an 18 billion mass one orbited by a smaller black hole.

OJ 287 is visible due to the streaming of matter present in the accretion disk onto the largest black hole. The smaller black hole passes through the larger’s the accretion disk during its orbit, causing the disk material to briefly heat up to very high temperatures. This heated material flows out from both sides of the accretion disk and radiates strongly for weeks, causing the double peak in brightness.

The orbit of the smaller black hole also precesses similar to how Mercury’s orbit precesses. This changes when and where the smaller black hole passes through the accretion disk.  After carefully observing eight outbursts of the black hole, the team was able to determine not only the black holes’ masses but also the precession rate of the orbit. Based on Valtonen’s model, the team predicted a flare in late November 2015, and it happened right on schedule.

OJ 287 has been fluctuating around 13.5-140 magnitude lately. You can spot in a 10-inch or larger scope in Cancer not far from the Beehive Cluster. Click the image for a detailed AAVSO finder chart. Diagram: Bob King, source: Stellarium
OJ 287 has been fluctuating around 13.5-140 magnitude lately. You can spot it in a 10-inch or larger scope in Cancer not far from the Beehive Cluster. Click the image for a detailed AAVSO finder chart. Diagram: Bob King, source: Stellarium

The timing of this bright outburst allowed Valtonen and his co-workers to directly measure the rotation rate of the more massive black hole to be nearly 1/3 the speed of light. I’ve checked around and as far as I can tell, this would make it the fastest spinning object we know of in the universe. Getting dizzy yet?

NASA Test Fires SLS Flight Engine Destined to Launch Astronauts Back to the Moon

NASA engineers conduct a successfully test firing of RS-25 rocket engine No. 2059 on the A-1 Test Stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. The hot fire marks the first test of an RS-25 flight engine for NASA’s new Space Launch System vehicle.  Credits: NASA/SSC
NASA engineers conduct a successful test firing of RS-25 rocket engine No. 2059 on the A-1 Test Stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. The hot fire marks the first test of an RS-25 flight engine for NASA’s new Space Launch System vehicle. Credits: NASA/SSC

NASA engineers have successfully test fired the first flight engine destined to power the agency’s mammoth new SLS rocket that will launch American astronauts back to the Moon and deep space for the first time in nearly five decades.

The flight proven RS-25 powerplant engine previously flew as one of three main engines that successfully rocketed NASA’s space shuttle orbiters to space during the three decade long Space Shuttle era that ended in 2011. Continue reading “NASA Test Fires SLS Flight Engine Destined to Launch Astronauts Back to the Moon”

Cassini Watches Star Through Enceladus’ Plume

When the Cassini probe first saw the plumes coming from Saturn’s moon Enceladus, it was a surprise. When it dipped through the plumes, some questions about the basic nature of the phenomenon were answered. But there are still many more questions, and today Cassini has an opportunity to find some answers.

Cassini will be in a perfect position today to observe the light from Epsilon Orionis, the central star in Orion’s belt, as it passes through Enceladus’ plume. This type of observation is known as a stellar occultation, and it promises to provide new information about the composition and density of the plume. Cassini’s Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrograph (UVIS) will do the capturing, and once the information is relayed back to Earth, it will be analyzed for clues.

An artist's impression of the plumes coming from Enceladus. Image: NASA/JPL.
An artist’s impression of the plumes coming from Enceladus. Image: NASA/JPL.

We already know a few things about Enceladus’ plumes. First of all, Enceladus itself is any icy world, with subsurface oceans. The moon is locked in an orbital resonance, which creates its eccentric orbit. This eccentric orbit is responsible for heating the south polar oceans, which drives material through the ice sheets and creates its stunning plumes, in a process known as cryovolcanism. (Radioactive decay might also have something to do with heating.)

Cassini has been at Saturn’s system for 12 years, and has gradually painted a more detailed picture of Enceladus. Over time, we’ve learned that the plumes themselves are similar to what comets are made of. Cassini initially detected mostly water vapor, with traces of molecular nitrogen, methane, and carbon dioxide. Later, the presence of the hydrocarbons propane, formaldehyde, and acetylene was confirmed.

This is all very interesting, but why would anyone other than chemistry geeks care? Because the universe, including our Solar System, is largely a cold, sterile place. And the plumes coming from Enceladus indicate the presence of water, potentially warm, salty, water at that. And warm water might mean life, or the potential for life.

Cassini has previously observed two other stellar occultations. But with today’s observation, we stand to learn even more about the plumes of Enceladus. We’ll not only learn more about their density and composition, but since is the third such occultation to be observed, we’ll learn something about the plume’s behaviour over time. We probably won’t learn anything definitive about Enceladus’ life-supporting potential, but we will almost certainly find another piece of the puzzle, and fill in a blank spot in our knowledge.

And that’s what science is all about.

Comet Created Chaos In Mars’ Magnetic Field

Comet Siding Spring (C/2007 Q3) as imaged in the infrared by the WISE space telescope. The image was taken January 10, 2010 when the comet was 2.5AU from the Sun. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

In the Autumn of 2014, NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft arrived at Mars and entered into orbit. MAVEN wasn’t the only visitor to arrive at Mars at that time though, as comet Siding Spring (C/2013 A1) also showed up at Mars. Most of MAVEN’s instruments were shut down to protect sensitive electronics from Siding Spring’s magnetic field. But the magnetometer aboard the spacecraft was left on, which gave MAVEN a great view of the interaction between the planet and the comet.

Unlike Earth, which has a powerful magnetosphere created by its rotating metal core, Mars’ magnetosphere is created by plasma in its upper atmosphere, and is not very powerful. (Mars may have had a rotating metal core in the past, and a stronger magnetosphere because of it, but that’s beside the point.) Comet Siding Spring is small, with its nucleus being only about one half a kilometer. But its magnetosphere is situated in its coma, the long ‘tail’ of the comet that stretches out for a million kilometers.

When Siding Spring approached Mars, it came to within 140,000 km (87,000 miles) of the planet. But the comet’s coma nearly touched the surface of the planet, and during that hours-long encounter, the magnetic field from the comet created havoc with Mars’ magnetic field. And MAVEN’s magnetometer captured the event.

MAVEN was in position to capture the close encounter between Mars and comet Siding Spring. Image: NASA/Goddard.
MAVEN was in position to capture the close encounter between Mars and comet Siding Spring. Image: NASA/Goddard.

Jared Espley is a member of the MAVEN team at Goddard Space Flight Center. He said of the Mars/Siding Spring event, “We think the encounter blew away part of Mars’ upper atmosphere, much like a strong solar storm would.”

“The main action took place during the comet’s closest approach,” said Espley, “but the planet’s magnetosphere began to feel some effects as soon as it entered the outer edge of the comet’s coma.”

Espley and his colleagues describe the event as a tide that washed over the Martian magnetosphere. Comet Siding Spring’s tail has a magnetosphere due to its interactions with the solar wind. As the comet is heated by the sun, plasma is generated, which interacts in turn with the solar wind, creating a magnetosphere. And like a tide, the effects were subtle at first, and the event played out over several hours as the comet passed by the planet.

Siding Spring’s magnetic tide had only a subtle effect on Mars at first. Normally, Mars’ magnetosphere is situated evenly around the planet, but as the comet got closer, some parts of the planet’s magnetosphere began to realign themselves. Eventually the effect was so powerful that the field was thrown into chaos, like a flag flapping every which way in a powerful wind. It took Mars a while to recover from this encounter as the field took several hours to recover.

MAVEN’s task is to gain a better understanding of the interactions between the Sun’s solar wind and Mars. So being able to witness the effect that Siding Spring had on Mars is an added bonus. Bruce Jakosky, from the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder, is one of MAVEN’s principal investigators. “By looking at how the magnetospheres of the comet and of Mars interact with each other,” said Jakosky, “we’re getting a better understanding of the detailed processes that control each one.”

InSight Mars Lander Saved from Termination, Reset to 2018 Blastoff

Back shell of NASA's InSight spacecraft is being lowered onto the mission's lander, which is folded into its stowed configuration.  The back shell and a heat shield form the aeroshell, which will protect the lander as the spacecraft plunges into the upper atmosphere of Mars.  Launch now rescheduled to May 2018 to fix French-built seismometer.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin
Back shell of NASA’s InSight spacecraft is being lowered onto the mission’s lander, which is folded into its stowed configuration. The back shell and a heat shield form the aeroshell, which will protect the lander as the spacecraft plunges into the upper atmosphere of Mars. Launch now rescheduled to May 2018 to fix French-built seismometer. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin

The Insight Mars lander has been saved from mission termination and will live to launch another day two years from now, NASA managers just announced following a thorough three month investigation into the causes of the last moment snafu involving the failure of its French-built seismometer science instrument that last December forced the agency to cancel its planned liftoff this month.

NASA is now targeting a new launch window that begins May 5, 2018, for the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission aimed at studying the deep interior of Mars.

The May 2018 launch amounts to an unavoidable 26 month launch delay from the originally planned launch on March 4, 2016. Because of the immutable laws of orbital mechanics, launch opportunities to the Red Planet only occur every 26 months.

Since InSight would not have been able to carry out and fulfill its intended research objectives because of a vacuum leak in its defective seismometer instrument, NASA managers had no choice but to scrub this year’s launch and its outlook for a future revival seemed potentially uncertain at best in today’s constrained budget environment.

“The spacecraft had been on track to launch this month until a vacuum leak in its prime science instrument prompted NASA in December to suspend preparations for launch,” said NASA officials.

The leak, if left uncorrected, would have rendered the flawed probe useless to carry out the unprecedented scientific research foreseen to measure the planets seismic activity and sense for “Marsquakes” to determine the nature of the Red Planet’s deep interior.

“The science goals of InSight are compelling, and the NASA and CNES plans to overcome the technical challenges are sound,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

“The quest to understand the interior of Mars has been a longstanding goal of planetary scientists for decades. We’re excited to be back on the path for a launch, now in 2018.”

Artist rendition of NASA’s Mars InSight (Interior exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) Lander. InSight is based on the proven Phoenix Mars spacecraft and lander design with state-of-the-art avionics from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) missions. Credit: JPL/NASA
Artist rendition of NASA’s Mars InSight (Interior exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) Lander. InSight is based on the proven Phoenix Mars spacecraft and lander design with state-of-the-art avionics from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) missions. Credit: JPL/NASA

InSight is now slated for a Mars landing on Nov. 26, 2018.

The seismometer instrument is named Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) and was provided by the Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES) – the French national space agency equivalent to NASA. SEIS is one of the two primary science instruments aboard InSight. The other instrument measuring heat flow from the Martian interior is provided by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and is named Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3).

“InSight project managers recently briefed officials at NASA and France’s space agency, Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES), on a path forward; the proposed plan to redesign the science instrument was accepted in support of a 2018 launch,” said NASA.

JPL will assume lead responsibility for insuring that the SEIS instrument operates properly with no leak.

The cost of the 2 year delay is still being assessed but expected to be in the tens of millions of dollars, likely over $100 million. How that will be payed for has yet to be determined.

Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for InSight and will place the spacecraft in storage while SEIS is fixed and until the 2018 launch date nears.

“We’re delighted that NASA has approved the launch of the InSight mission in May 2018,” Stu Spath, Lockhhed Martin spacecraft program manager told Universe Today.

“Currently, we are preparing the spacecraft to go into storage at our Space Systems facility near Denver.”

“Our team worked hard to get the InSight spacecraft built and tested, and although InSight didn’t launch this year as planned, we know ultimately the scientific knowledge it will bring us is crucial to our understanding of how Mars and other rocky planets formed.”

NASA's InSight Mars lander spacecraft in a Lockheed Martin clean room near Denver. As part of a series of deployment tests, the spacecraft was commanded to deploy its solar arrays in the clean room to test and verify the exact process that it will use on the surface of Mars.
NASA’s InSight Mars lander spacecraft in a Lockheed Martin clean room near Denver. As part of a series of deployment tests, the spacecraft was commanded to deploy its solar arrays in the clean room to test and verify the exact process that it will use on the surface of Mars.

InSight is funded by NASA’s Discovery Program of low cost, focused science missions along with the science instrument funding contributions from France and Germany.

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

Ken Kremer

DSCOVR Captures EPIC Views of the March 2016 Eclipse

On March 8, 2016 (March 9 local time) the Moon briefly blocked the light from the Sun in what was the only total solar eclipse of the year. The event was visible across portions of southeast Asia, Indonesia, and Micronesia, and was observed by both skywatchers on the ground in person and those watching live online around the world. While to most the view was of a silhouetted Moon slowly carving away the disk of the Sun before totality revealed a shimmering corona, the view from space looking back at Earth showed the Moon’s dark shadow passing over islands, clouds, and sea.

Continue reading “DSCOVR Captures EPIC Views of the March 2016 Eclipse”

MRO: Ten Years Of Breathtaking Work Above Mars

Today marks exactly 10 years since NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) arrived at Mars and began its journey of breathtaking discovery. It’s impossible to exaggerate the effect that the MRO has had on our understanding of Mars. Among MRO’s contributions to our knowledge of Mars is the (possible) detection of liquid water, an understanding of the seasonal changes on Mars, and the identification of underground geological structures.

To top it all off, MRO has produced some great Martian eye candy.
Martian Eye Candy: A beautiful picture of some dunes on the surface of Mars. Thanks MRO! (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MRO) Martian Eye Candy: A beautiful picture of some dunes on the surface of Mars. Thanks MRO! (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)

These kinds of discoveries are directly attributable to the mission’s longevity, and to the productivity of the science instruments aboard the orbiter. MRO’s 6 science instruments are still functioning 7 years after the principal science phase of the mission was completed.

MRO still has an important role to play, as an advance scout for rover missions and human missions. And, of course, it’s still doing important science work.

For more information on MRO’s contributions, and some great infographic summaries, visit NASA’s MRO Ten Years of Discovery Page.

It’s Going To Be A Blast! First RS-25 Flight Engine Test Set For March

RS-25 engine #2059 being delivered to the test stand at Stennis Space Center. Image: NASA/SSC.

NASA is about to reach another milestone in the development of its Space Launch System (SLS.) The SLS is designed to take humans on future deep space missions, and the heart of the system is the RS-25 engine. March 10th will be the first test of this flight-model engine, which will be the most powerful rocket in the world, once in its final configuration.

SLS is the future of space flight for NASA. It’s planned uses include missions to Mars and to an asteroid. The rockets for the system have to be powerful, and they have to have a proven track record. The RS-25 fits the bill: they are a high-performance system that has seen much use.

The  RS-25 has been used on over 135 shuttle missions, and they have seen over 1 million seconds of hot-fire time during ground testing. For the SLS, four RS-25s will be used to generate over 2 million pounds of thrust, and they will operate in conjunction with two solid rocket boosters.

“This year is all about collecting the data we need to adapt these proven engines for SLS’s first flight,” says Steve Wafford, the SLS Engines Manager. The team conducted a series of tests on a developmental RS-25 engine last year, but this is the first one that will fly.

Ronnie Rigney is the RS-25 project manager at the Stennis Space Center, where the tests are being conducted. “Every test is important, but there really is a different energy level associated with flight engines. It’s hard to describe the feeling you get knowing you’re going to see that engine lift off into the sky one day soon. It’s a very exciting time for all of us here,” said Rigney.

The SLS will be built in 3 stages, called blocks:

  • Block 1 will have a 70 metric ton lift capability.
  • Block 1B will be more powerful for deeper missions and will have a 105 metric ton lift capability.
  • Block 2 will add a pair of solid or liquid propellant boosters and will have a 130 metric ton lift capability.

Each of these blocks will use 4 RS-25 engines, and in its Block 2 configuration it will be the most powerful rocket in the world.

Engine #2059 is more than just a test engine. It will be used on the second SLS exploration mission (EM2), which will carry 4 astronauts into lunar orbit to test the SLS spacecraft.

“You can’t help but be excited about the test on A-1 (test stand,) especially when you realize that the engines that carried us to the moon and that carried astronauts on 135 space shuttle missions were tested on this very same stand. We’re just adding to a remarkable history of space exploration,” said Stennis Space Center Director Rick Gilbrech.

The team at Stennis feels the characteristic enthusiasm that NASA is known for. “We’re not just dreaming of the future. We’re enabling it to happen right now,” said Rigney.

Though the March 10th test is definitely a milestone, there’s still lots more work to do. Testing on RS-25 engines and flight controllers will continue, and in 2017, testing of the core stage will take place. 4 RS-25 engines will be tested at the same time.

That will be quite a sight.