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”

J.J. Abrams Heading To The Moon With Google Lunar X-Prize

As the director of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” and “Star Trek Into Darkness”, J.J. Abrams is no stranger to space narratives. But now he’s leaving behind light saber battles and warp drive chase sequences to tackle something a little more realistic.

Abrams’ newest project is a 9 part documentary series, called “Moon Shot,” that showcases 16 different teams of people competing for Google’s Lunar X-Prize. The teams of entrepreneurs, scientists, and inventors will have to engineer a spacecraft, have it land a rover on the Moon, travel 500 meters, and then transmit HD video and images back to Earth. And they have to have their launch contract verified by the end of 2017. This is a daunting task.

Though the Moon might appear rather placid, and even safe compared to some of the hostile environments Earthlings and their spacecraft have ventured to, it’s not an easy place to do business in. We’re getting used to seeing rovers and landers and orbiters visit the Moon in what seems like a work-a-day process. But the Moon is still a hostile place.

The temperature on the Moon fluctuates wildly. At its coldest, the temperature drops to a frigid -246 C (-412 F.) At its hottest, the temperature jumps to a scorching  100 C (212F.) A 350 C swing in temperatures is hard on equipment and requires robust designing and engineering.

Temperature fluctuation aside, there is also the increased radiation to contend with. The Moon lacks the magnetosphere and atmosphere that protects Earth from the full onslaught of the Sun, so sensitive electronics have to contend with that. And then there’s the dust, which can also be hard on equipment. Remember, the Google Lunar X-Prize is a competition to land a privately-funded robot on the Moon.  Dealing with these formidable challenges as a small team is much harder, considering that the teams don’t have the resources that NASA and other groups have. But with $30 million in prize money at stake, we can expect to see some highly-motivated people competing.

Competitors include a German team backed by Audi (teams have to prove that they are 90% funded by private money,) a father and son working from a bedroom in Vancouver, a team of IT specialists from India, and a Japanese team from the Department of Aerospace Engineering at Tohoku University.

Though the science aspect of the series will no doubt be fascinating—the Japanese team has revealed that they will use VR to control their innovative camera system—it’s the stories of the people trying to win the prize that should be even more gripping. Who are these people? What drives these people to do such a thing?

The series will be available for viewing on YouTube on March 17, 2016, and on Google Play on March 15, 2016. Can’t wait to check it out.

 

Weekly Space Hangout – Mar. 4, 2016: Dr. Michelle Thaller

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Guests: Dr. Michelle Thaller, the assistant director for Science Communication at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. From 1998 to 2009 she was a staff scientist at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center, and later Manager of the Education and Public Outreach program for the Spitzer Space Telescope, at the California Institute of Technology.

Kimberly Cartier (@AstroKimCartier )
Morgan Rehnberg (MorganRehnberg.com / @MorganRehnberg)
Dave Dickinson (www.astroguyz.com / @astroguyz)
Jolene Creighton (fromquarkstoquasars.com / @futurism)
Nicole Gugliucci (cosmoquest.org / @noisyastronomer)
Carolyn Collins Petersen (thespacewriter.com / space.about.com / @spacewriter )

Their stories this week:
Scott Kelly reruns to Earth after nearly a year in space

Fast Radio Bursts, now with more repeating

NASA commissions a new supersonic jet

Searching for Ice-Bound life on Earth to find it on other planets and moons

A New Look at the Ancient History of Mars

Temperature on Titan

ESA Planning to Build an International Village on the Moon!

Finally going back to Venus

Remember that FRB from last week? Might be a false alarm…

We’ve had an abundance of news stories for the past few months, and not enough time to get to them all. So we’ve started a new system. Instead of adding all of the stories to the spreadsheet each week, we are now using a tool called Trello to submit and vote on stories we would like to see covered each week, and then Fraser will be selecting the stories from there. Here is the link to the Trello WSH page (http://bit.ly/WSHVote), which you can see without logging in. If you’d like to vote, just create a login and help us decide what to cover!

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Friday at 12:00 pm Pacific / 3:00 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Google+, Universe Today, or the Universe Today YouTube page.

You can also join in the discussion between episodes over at our Weekly Space Hangout Crew group in G+!

India’s MOM Publishes Amazing Mars Images

An artist's illustration of the MOM orbiter at Mars. Image:By Nesnad - Own work, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29435816

Science—like literature and the arts—helps nations cooperate together, even when they’re in conflict politically. The USA and Russia are in conflict over the Ukraine and Syria, yet both nations still cooperate when it comes to the International Space Station. With that in mind, it’s great to see other nations—in this case India—taking on a greater role in space exploration and sharing their scientific results.

India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) probe has been in orbit around Mars since September 2014, after being launched in November 2013. Though the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has released plenty of pictures of the surface of Mars, they haven’t released any scientific data. Until now.

A beautiful full-disc image of Mars captured by MOM. Image: ISRO/MOM.
A beautiful full-disc image of Mars captured by MOM. Image: ISRO/MOM.

In September 2015, MOM’s orbit was adjusted to bring it to within 260 km of Mars’ surface, significantly closer to the surface than the usual 400 km altitude.  This manoeuver allowed one of MOM’s six instruments, the Mars Exospheric Neutral Composition Analyzer (MENCA), to measure the atmospheric composition at different altitudes. The sensor measured carbon dioxide, oxygen, nitrogen and carbon monoxide to see how they were distributed at different altitudes.

MOM’s activity at Mars is important for a couple of reasons.  Its results confirm the results of other probes that have studied Mars’ atmosphere. And confirmation is an important part of science. But there’s another reason why MOM is important, and this centres around the search for evidence of life on the Red Planet.

Methane is considered a marker for the presence of life. It’s not an absolute indicator that life is or was present, but it’s a good hint. One of MOM’s sensors is the Methane Sensor for Mars (MSM.) Methane has been detected in Mars’ atmosphere before, but these could have been spikes, and not a strong indicator of living processes. If MSM provides stronger data indicating a consistent methane presence, that would be very interesting.

Releasing these results is also vindication for ISRO. In 2008, ISRO released data from their lunar mission, Chandrayaan-1, showing the presence of water on the Moon. Those results, which were gathered with an instrument called Chandra’s Altitudinal Composition Explorer (CHACE) were rejected by several scientific publications, on the grounds that the results were contaminated. Only when they were confirmed by another of Chandrayaan-1’s instruments—the Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3)—were the results accepted.

But MOM’s MENCA instrument is based on the CHACE instrument aboard Chandrayaan-1, so ISRO feels that MENCA’s success in the atmosphere at Mars vindicates CHACE’s results on the Moon. And rightly so.

You can read a blog post by Syed Maqbool Ahmed at the Planetary Society, where he talks about the success of MOM’s MENCA, and how it vindicates ISRO’s earlier results with CHACE that showed the presence of water on the Moon.

MOM is India’s first interplanetary mission, and is expected to last until its fuel runs out, which could take many years. India is the first Asian nation to make it to another planet, and the first of any nation to make it to Mars on their first attempt. Not bad for a mission that was initially considered to be only a technology demonstration mission.

 

SpaceX Aims for Friday Sunset Launch After Boats and Winds Delay Falcon 9 Liftoff and Landing Attempt – Live Webcast

Sunset view of SpaceX Falcon 9 after aborted launch of SES-9 communications satellite on Feb 28, 2016.  Liffoff now slated for March 4, 2016 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL after four scrubs due to weather and technical issues. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Sunset view of SpaceX Falcon 9 after aborted launch of SES-9 communications satellite on Feb 28, 2016. Liffoff now slated for March 4, 2016 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL after four scrubs due to weather and technical issues. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL – Alas SpaceX is now targeting Friday March 4 for the 5th attempt to launch their upgraded Falcon 9 carrying the powerful SES-9 commercial telecommunications satellite, following another pair of launch scrubs earlier this week due to errant boats and strong winds aloft.

“We’re now targeting Friday, March 4 at 6:35 pm ET for launch of SES-9,” said SpaceX spokesman Phil Larson. Sunset is at 6:25 pm. Continue reading “SpaceX Aims for Friday Sunset Launch After Boats and Winds Delay Falcon 9 Liftoff and Landing Attempt – Live Webcast”

Scott Kelly Arrives Back On Earth and the USA from Year in Space! Enjoys Dip in His Pool

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly landed at Houston’s Ellington Field around 2:30 PM, Mar. 3, 2016, marking his return to the U.S. following an agency record-setting year in space aboard the International Space Station.  Kelly was greeted in Houston by Second Lady of the United States Dr. Jill Biden, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology Dr. John P. Holdren, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, and Kelly’s identical twin brother and former NASA astronaut Mark Kelly. Credit: NASA
NASA astronaut Scott Kelly landed at Houston’s Ellington Field around 2:30 AM, Mar. 3, 2016, marking his return to the U.S. following an agency record-setting year in space aboard the International Space Station. Kelly was greeted in Houston by Second Lady of the United States Dr. Jill Biden, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology Dr. John P. Holdren, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, and Kelly’s identical twin brother and former NASA astronaut Mark Kelly. Credit: NASA

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – NASA’s first ever ‘Year in Space’ astronaut Scott Kelly was in good shape and smiling broadly for the Earth bound photographers after safely returning to Earth from his orbiting home of the past year on the International Space Station (ISS), for a smooth touchdown in the steppes of Kazakhstan late Monday evening, March 1.

He soon jetted back to the USA for a grand arrival ceremony back home in Houston in the wee hours of the morning, today, March 3, 2016.

“Great to be back on Earth, said Kelly. “There’s no place like home!”

Kelly landed on US soil at Houston’s Ellington Field early this morning at about 2:30 a.m.

Kelly was welcomed back to the USA by Second Lady of the United States Dr. Jill Biden, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology Dr. John P. Holdren, NASA Administrator and former astronaut Charles Bolden, and Kelly’s identical twin brother and former NASA astronaut Mark Kelly.

Before departing the station after a 340 day stay, Kelly said that among the things he missed most on Earth were fresh air and food and freedom of movement. And swimming in his pool.

Well he quickly made good on those wishes and after arriving back home before daylight soon took a dip in his backyard pool.

Kelly posted a video of his pleasant pool plummet in all its glory on twitter:

“Man, that feels good!” he exclaimed.

Expedition 46 Commander Scott Kelly of NASA rests in a chair outside of the Soyuz TMA-18M spacecraft just minutes after he and cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Sergey Volkov of the Russian space agency Roscosmos landed in a remote area near the town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan late Tuesday, March 1 EST.  Credits: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Expedition 46 Commander Scott Kelly of NASA rests in a chair outside of the Soyuz TMA-18M spacecraft just minutes after he and cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Sergey Volkov of the Russian space agency Roscosmos landed in a remote area near the town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan late Tuesday, March 1 EST. Credits: NASA/Bill Ingalls

The long trip back home began after Kelly boarded his Russian Soyuz TMA-18M return capsule along with Russian cosmonaut crewmates Mikhail Kornienko and Sergey Volkov.

Kelly and his Russian cohort Mikhail Kornienko comprised the first ever crew to live and work aboard the ISS for a record breaking year-long mission aimed at taking concrete steps towards eventually dispatching human crews for multiyear-long expeditions to the surface of Mars and back.

Volkov spent a normal six month increment aboard the station.

Expedition 46 Commander Scott Kelly of NASA is seen after returning to Ellington Field, Thursday, March 3, 2016 in Houston, Texas after his return to Earth the previous day. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

The goal of the 1 year ISS mission was to collect a variety of data on the effects of long duration weightlessness on the human body that will be used to formulate a human mission to Mars.

Kelly and Kornienko originally launched to the station on March 27, 2015 along with Russian crewmate Gennady Padalka.

The trio undocked from the station inside their cramped Soyuz capsule, pulled away, fired breaking thrusters and plummeted back to Earth a few hours later, surviving scorching reentry temperatures as the passed through the Earth atmosphere.

They safely landed in Kazakhstan at 11:26 p.m. EST on Tuesday night, March 1, 2016 (10:26 a.m. March 2 Kazakhstan time), concluding Expedition 46.

The Soyuz TMA-18M spacecraft is seen as it lands with Expedition 46 Commander Scott Kelly of NASA and Russian cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Sergey Volkov of Roscosmos near the town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan on Wednesday, March 2, 2016 (Kazakh time). Kelly and Kornienko completed an International Space Station record year-long mission to collect valuable data on the effect of long duration weightlessness on the human body that will be used to formulate a human mission to Mars. Volkov returned after spending six months on the station. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
The Soyuz TMA-18M spacecraft is seen as it lands with Expedition 46 Commander Scott Kelly of NASA and Russian cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Sergey Volkov of Roscosmos near the town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan on Wednesday, March 2, 2016 (Kazakh time). Kelly and Kornienko completed an International Space Station record year-long mission to collect valuable data on the effect of long duration weightlessness on the human body that will be used to formulate a human mission to Mars. Volkov returned after spending six months on the station. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Kelly set an American record for longest time in space on a single mission by living and working for 340 days straight aboard the ISS.

Kelly and Kornienko share the history making distinction of comprising the first ever ‘1 Year Crew’ to serve aboard the massive Earth orbiting science research outpost in space.

With a cumulative total of 520 days in space, Kelly has amassed the most time for an American in space. Kornienko has accumulated 516 days across two flights, and Volkov has 548 days on three flights.

During the yearlong mission 10 astronauts and cosmonauts representing six different nations including the United States, Russia, Japan, Denmark, Kazakhstan and England lived aboard the space station.

The station currently remains occupied by a three person crew hailing from the US, Russia and England. A new three person crew launches later in March.

NASA’s next commercial resupply launch to the station is slated for March 22 by a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying an Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo freighter with over 7000 pounds of fresh science experiments and crew supplies.

Technicians process the Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft inside the Kennedy Space Center clean room facility that is launching on the OA-4 mission on Dec. 3, 2015.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Technicians process the Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft inside the Kennedy Space Center clean room facility that is launching on the OA-4 mission on Dec. 3, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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

Ken Kremer

………….

Learn more about SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, ULA Atlas rocket, Orbital ATK Cygnus, ISS, Boeing, Space Taxis, Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Mar 4: “SpaceX, ULA, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

An Ancient Volcanic Cataclysm Spun Mars Off Its Poles

A colorized image of the surface of Mars taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The line of three volcanoes is the Tharsis Montes, with Olympus Mons to the northwest. Valles Marineris is to the east. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ Arizona State University

“What happened to Mars?” is one of the most compelling questions in space science. It probably wasn’t always the dead, dry, cold place it is now. Did its core cool and stop rotating, allowing the full glare of the sun to blast away its atmosphere and water, and kill anything that may have lived there? Was it struck by a large body, which incinerated its atmosphere, and led to its demise? Were there other causes?

According to a new research paper from Sylvain Bouley at the University of Paris-South, and his colleagues, it may have been a massive, ancient outpouring of molten rock that threw Mars off kilter and helped change Mars into what it is today.

The Tharsis region is an ancient lava complex on Mars that dates back to between 4.1 billion and 3.7 billion years ago. It’s located in Mars’ Western Hemisphere, right near the equator. It’s made up of three huge shield volcanoes—Arsia Mons, Pavonis Mons, and Ascraeus Mons. Collectively, they’re known as Tharsis Montes. (Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in the Solar System, is not a part of the Tharsis complex, though it is near it.)

Tharsis is over 5,000 km across and over 10 miles thick, making it the largest volcanic complex in the Solar System. That much mass positioned after Mars was already formed and had an established rotation would have been cataclysmic. Think what would happen to Earth if Australia rose up 10 miles.

An image of the Syria-Thaumasia region of the Tharsis complex, showing the volcano Arsia Mons on the left, and Valles Marineris on the northern edge. Brown areas are the highest altitude. Open Source Image: Arizona State University, JMars.
An image of the Syria-Thaumasia region of the Tharsis complex, showing the volcano Arsia Mons on the left, and Valles Marineris on the northern edge. Brown areas are the highest altitude. Open Source Image: Arizona State University, JMars.

The new paper, published on March 2nd, 2016, in the journal Nature, says that the position of the Tharsis complex would have initiated a True Polar Wander (TPW.) Basically, what this means is that Tharsis’ huge mass would have forced Mars to shift its rotation, so that the location of Tharsis became the new equator.

It was thought that the emergence of Tharsis made Martian rivers—which formed later—flow the direction they do. But the study from Bouley and his colleagues shows that Martian rivers and valleys formed first—or maybe concurrently—and that the Tharsis TPW deformed the planet later.

The authors of the study calculated where the Martian poles would have been prior to Tharsis, and looked for evidence of polar conditions at those locations. The location of this ancient north pole contains a lot of ice today, and the location of the ancient south polar region also shows evidence of water.

What it all adds up to is that the disappearance of water on Mars probably happened at the same time as the TPW. Whether the appearance of the Tharsis lava complex, and the resulting cataclysmic shifting of Mars’ rotational orientation, were the cause of Mars losing its climate is not yet known for sure. But this study shows that the ancient volcanic cataclysm did at least help shape Mars into what it is today.

 

Surfing On Titan Would Be Best In Summer

The view from the beach on Titan? Image: NASA

Space is mostly vast and empty. So whenever we notice something like ripples on a lake, on the frozen moon of a gas giant, we take notice.

At a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco this week, it was reported that Cassini images of Saturn’s moon Titan showed light being reflected from the Ligeia Mare, a frigid sea of hydrocarbons on that moon. Subsequent images showed the same phenomenon on two other seas of Titan, as well. These are thought to be waves, the first waves detected anywhere other than Earth, and suggest that Titan has more geophysical activity than previously thought.

Surfers on Earth, known for seeking out remote and secretive locations, shouldn’t get too excited. According to mathematical modelling and radar imagery, these waves are only 1.5 cm (0.6 inches) tall, and they’re moving only 0.7 metres (2.3 feet) per second. Plus, they’re on a sea of liquid hydrocarbons—mostly methane—that is a frigid -180 degrees Celsius (-292 F.)

The left image shows a mosaic of images of Titan taken by the Cassini spacecraft in near infrared light. Titan’s polar seas are visible as sunlight glints off of them. The right image is a radar image of Kraken Mare. Credit: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The left image shows a mosaic of images of Titan taken by the Cassini spacecraft in near infrared light. Titan’s polar seas are visible as sunlight glints off of them. The right image is a radar image of Kraken Mare. Credit: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Planetary scientists are taking note, though, because these waves show that Titan has an active environment, rather than just being a moon frozen in time. It’s thought that the change in seasons on Titan is responsible for these waves, as Titan begins its 7 year summer. Processes related to the changing seasons on Titan have created winds, which have cause these ripples.

There’s other evidence of active weather on Titan, including dunes, river channels, and shorelines. But this is the first observation of active weather phenomena, rather than just the results. All together, it shows that Titan is a more active, dynamic environment than previously thought.

Titan’s hydrocarbon lakes are thought to be up to 200 metres (656 ft.) deep, and are clustered around the north polar region. Just one of its lakes is thought to contain approximately 9,000 cubic km of methane, which is about 40 times more than the Earth’s reserves of oil and gas.

Titan is the second largest moon in the Solar System, second only to Ganymede, and both moons are larger than the planet Mercury. Titan was discovered in 1655 by Christiaan Huygens.