China has released hundreds of images of the Moon, taken by its Chang’e 3 lander and its companion rover, Yutu. It’s been 50 years since the first lunar photos were taken by astronauts on NASA’s Apollo 11 mission. China is the third nation to land on the Moon, with the USA and the USSR preceding them.
Even though the Yutu rover’s engine failed after a short time on the lunar surface, the mission’s camera systems have captured hundreds of images.
Thanks to the hard work of Emily Lakdawalla at The Planetary Society, who wrestled with a somewhat cumbersome Chinese website, and stitched some of these images together, we can get a first-hand look at what Chang’e 3 and Yutu were up to.
Here are some of our favourites.
Emily Lakdawalla talks more about the camera systems here, and talks about what other images might be coming soon.
Universe Today reported on the Chinese Moon mission here.
On this date half a century ago the Soviet Luna 9 spacecraft made humanity’s first-ever soft landing on the surface of the Moon. Launched from Baikonur on Jan. 31, 1966, Luna 9 lander touched down within Oceanus Procellarum — somewhere in the neighborhood of 7.08°N, 64.37°E* — at 18:44:52 UTC on Feb. 3. The fourth successful mission in the USSR’s long-running Luna series, Luna 9 sent us our first views of the Moon’s surface from the surface and, perhaps even more importantly, confirmed that a landing by spacecraft was indeed possible.
The entire Luna 9 lander was made up of two main parts: a 1,439-kg flight/descent stage which contained retro-rockets and orientation engines, navigation systems, and various fuel tanks, and a 99-kg (218-lb) pressurized “automatic lunar station” that contained all the science and imaging instruments along with batteries, heaters, and a radio transmitter.
When a probe on the descent stage detected contact with the lunar surface, the spherical station — encased in an inflated airbag — was jettisoned to soft-land a safe distance away — after a bit of bouncing, of course; the lander hit the Moon’s surface at about 22 km/hr (13 mph)!
Once the airbag cushions deflated Luna 9, like a shiny metal flower, opened its four “petals,” extended its radio antennas and began taking panoramic television camera images of its surroundings, at the time lit by a very low Sun on the lunar horizon. Received on Earth early on Feb. 4, 1966, they were the first pictures taken from the surface of the Moon and in fact the first images acquired from the surface of another world.
Other missions, both Soviet and American, had captured close-up images of the Moon in previous years but Luna 9 was the first to soft-land (i.e., not crash land) and operate from the surface. The spacecraft continued transmitting image data to Earth until its batteries ran out on the night of Feb. 6, 1966. A total of four panoramas were acquired by Luna 9 over the course of three days, as well as data on radiation levels on the Moon’s surface (not to mention the valuable knowledge that a spacecraft wouldn’t just completely sink into the lunar regolith!)
Four months later, on June 2, 1966, NASA’s Surveyor 1 would become the first U.S. spacecraft to soft-land on the Moon. Surveyor 1 would send back science data and 11,240 photos over the course of a month in operation but, in terms of the space “race,” Luna 9 will always be remembered as first place winner.
*Or is it 7.14°N/60.36°W? Even today it’s still not precisely known where Luna 9 landed, but researchers at Arizona State University are actively searching through Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera pictures in an attempt to spot the “lost” spacecraft and/or evidence of its historic landing. Read more about that here.
The Moon is the first object in space that fascinates we Earthlings. The Sun might be more prominent, but you can’t stare at the Sun without ocular damage. Anyone can gaze at the Moon, with or without binoculars or a telescope, and wonder where it came from and what it all means.
New evidence from a team at UCLA is clarifying the story of the Moon’s origins. According to this research, the Moon was formed as a result of a massive collision between Earth and a “planet embryo” about the size of Mars called Theia. This collision happened about 100 million years after the Earth was formed. Published on January 29th in the journal Science, this new geological evidence strengthens the case for the collision model.
The researchers compared Earth rocks with rocks retrieved from the Moon over the years. (Over 380kg of rocks have been brought back to Earth.) They found that these samples—collected on Apollo missions 12, 15, and 17—had the same chemical composition as seven rocks collected from Earth’s mantle, in Hawaii and Arizona. The key to the comparison lies in the nature of the oxygen atoms in the rocks.
Oxygen is a highly reactive element. It is easily combined with other elements, and is the most common element in the Earth’s crust. There are several different oxygen isotopes present in the Earth’s crust, and on other bodies in the solar system. The amount of each isotope present on each body is the “fingerprint” that makes the formation of each body different.
But the team at UCLA has shown that Earth and the Moon share the same cocktail of oxygen isotopes. They have the same fingerprint. This means that somehow, someway, their formation is linked. It can’t be pure coincidence. Says Edward Young, lead author of the new study, “We don’t see any difference between the Earth’s and the Moon’s oxygen isotopes; they’re indistinguishable.”
So how did this happen? How do Earth and the Moon share the same oxygen fingerprint? Enter Theia, an embryonic planet that got in the way of Earth’s orbit around the Sun. And as the research shows, this collision had to be more than a glancing blow. The collision had to be direct and cataclysmic.
This video shows how the collision would have played out.
A glancing blow would mean that the Moon would be mostly made of Theia, and would therefore have a different oxygen isotope fingerprint than Earth. But the fact that the Earth and Moon are indistinguishable from each other means that Theia had to have been destroyed, or rather, had to become part of both the Earth and the Moon.
“Theia was thoroughly mixed into the Earth and the Moon, and evenly dispersed between them. This explains why we don’t see a different signature of Theia in the Moon versus Earth,” said Young.
If this collision had not taken place, our Solar System would look very different, with an additional rocky planet in the inner regions. We also would have no Moon, which would have changed the evolution of life on Earth.
This collision theory, called the Theia Impact, or the Big Splash, has been around since 2012. But in 2014, a team of German researchers reported in Science that the Earth and Moon have different oxygen isotope ratios, which threw the collision formation theory into doubt. These new results confirm that it was a cataclysmic collision that gave birth to the Moon, and changed our Solar System forever.
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER – Looking amazingly like a fish flying across the skies high above the Florida space coast, NASA’s unique Super Guppy aircraft loaded with the structural backbone for NASA’s next Orion crew module, swooped in for a landing at the Kennedy Space Center on Monday afternoon, Feb. 1.
The Ariane 5 rocket is a workhorse for delivering satellites and other payloads into orbit, but fitting the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) inside one is pushing the boundaries of the Ariane 5’s capabilities, and advancing our design of space observatories at the same time.
The Ariane 5 is the most modern design in the ESA’s Ariane rocket series. It’s responsible for delivering things like Rosetta, the Herschel Space Observatory, and the Planck Observatory into space. The ESA is supplying an Ariane 5 to the JWST mission, and with the planned launch date for that mission less than three years away, it’s a good time to check in with the Ariane 5 and the JWST.
The Ariane 5 has a long track record of success, often carrying multiple satellites into orbit in a single launch. Here’s its most recent launch, on January 27th from the ESA’s spaceport in French Guiana. This is Ariane 5’s 70th successful launch in a row.
But launching satellites into orbit, though still an amazing achievement, is becoming old hat for rockets. 70 successful launches in a row tells us that. The Ariane 5 can even launch multiple satellites in one mission. But launching the James Webb will be Ariane’s biggest challenge.
The thing about satellites is, they’re actually getting smaller, in many cases. But the JWST is huge, at least in terms of dimensions. The mass of the JWST—6,500 kg (14,300 lb)—is just within the limits of the Ariane 5. The real trick was designing and building the JWST so that it could fit into the cylindrical space atop an Ariane 5, and then “unfold” into its final shape after separation from the rocket. This video shows how the JWST will deploy itself.
The JWST is like a big, weird looking beetle. Its gold-coated, segmented mirror system looks like multi-faceted insect eyes. Its tennis-court sized heat shield is like an insect’s shell. Or something. Cramming all those pieces, folded up, into the nose of the Ariane 5 rocket is a real challenge.
Because the JWST will live out its 10-year (hopefully) mission at L2, rather than in orbit around Earth, it requires this huge shield to protect itself from the sun. The instruments on the James Webb have to be kept cool in order to function properly. The only way to achieve this is to have its heat shield folded up inside the rocket for launch, then unfolded later. That’s a very tricky maneuver.
But there’s more.
The heart of the James Webb is its segmented mirror system. This group of 18 gold-coated, beryllium mirrors also has to be folded up to fit into the Ariane 5, and then unfolded once it’s separated from the rocket. This is a lot trickier than launching things like the Hubble, which was deployed from the space shuttle.
Something else makes all this folding and unfolding very tricky. The Hubble, which was James Webb’s predecessor, is in orbit around Earth. That means that astronauts on Shuttle missions have been able to repair and service the Hubble. But the James Webb will be way out there at L2, so it can’t be serviced in any way. We have one chance to get it right.
Right now, the James Webb is still under construction in the “Clean Room” at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre. A precision robotic arm system is carefully mounting Webb’s 18 mirrors.
There’s still over two years until the October 2018 launch date, and there’s a lot of testing and assembly work going on until then. We’ll be paying close attention not only to see if the launch goes as planned, but also to see if the James Webb—the weird looking beetle—can successfully complete its metamorphosis.
In the 18th century, French astronomer Charles Messier kept noting the presence of fixed, diffuse objects in the night sky. Initially, he thought these were comets, which he was attempting to locate at the time. However, astronomers would later discover that these objects were in fact nebulae, galaxies and star clusters. Between the years of 1758 and 1782, Messier compiled a list of approximately 100 of these objects.
His intention was to ensure that other astronomers would not mistake these objects for comets. But in time, this list – known as the Messier Catalog – served a higher purpose. In addition to being a collection of some of the most beautiful objects in the night sky, the catalog was also an important milestone in the discovery and research of Deep Sky objects. The first item in the catalog is the famous Crab Nebula – hence its designation as Messier Object 1, or M1.
Messier 1 (aka. M1, NGC 1952, Sharpless 244, and the Crab Nebula) is a supernova remnant located in the Perseus Arm of the Milky Way Galaxy, roughly 6500 ± 1600 light years from Earth. Like all supernova remnants, it is an expanding cloud of gas that was created during the explosion of a star. This material is spread over a volume approximately 13 ± 3 ly in diameter, and is still expanding at a velocity of about 1,500 km/s (930 mi/s).
Based on its current rate of expansion, it is assumed that the overall deceleration of the nebula’s expansion must has decreased since the initial supernova. Essentially, after the explosion occurred, the nebula’s pulsar would have began to emit radiation that fed the nebula’s magnetic field, thus expanding it and forcing it outward.
In visible light, the Crab Nebula consists of an oval-shaped mass of filaments – whose spectral emission lines are split into both red and blue-shifted components – which surround a blue central region. The filament are leftover from the outer layers of the former star’s atmosphere, and consist primarily of hydrogen and helium, along with traces of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and heavier elements. The filaments’ temperatures are typically between 11,000 and 18,000 K.
The blue region, meanwhile, is the result of highly polarized synchrotron radiation, which is emitted by high-energy electrons in a strong magnetic field. The curved path of these electrons is due to the strong magnetic field produced by the neutron star at the center of the nebula (see below). One of the many components of the Crab Nebula is a helium-rich torus which is visible as an east-west band crossing the pulsar region.
The torus accounts for about 25% of the nebula’s visible ejecta and is believed to be made up of 95% helium. As yet, there has been no plausible explanation for the structure of the torus. And while it is very difficult to gauge the total mass of the nebula, official estimates place it at 4.6 ± 1.8 Solar masses – i.e 5.5664 to 12.7232 × 1030 kg.
At the center of the Crab Nebula are two faint stars, one of which is its progenitor (i.e the one that created it). It is because of this star that M1 is a strong source of radio waves, X-rays and Gamma-ray radiation. The remnant of supernova SN 1054, which was widely observed on Earth in the year 1054, this star was discovered in 1968 and has since been designated as a radio pulsar.
Known as the Crab Pulsar (or NP0532), this rapidly rotating star is believed to be about 28–30 km (17–19 mi) in diameter and emits pulses of radiation – ranging from radio wave and X-ray – every 33 milliseconds. Like all isolated pulsars, its period is slowing very gradually, and the energy released as the pulsar slows down is enormous. The Crab Pulsar is also the source of the nebula’s synchrotron radiation, which has a total luminosity about 75,000 times greater than that of the Sun.
The pulsar’s extreme energy output also creates an unusually dynamic region at the center of the Crab Nebula. While most astronomical objects only show changes over timescales of many years, the inner parts of the Crab show changes over the course of only a few days. The most dynamic feature in the inner part of the nebula is the point where the pulsar’s equatorial wind slams into the bulk of the nebula, forming a shock front (see above image).
The Crab Pulsar is also surrounded by an expanding gas shell which encompasses its spectroscopic companion star, which in turn orbits the neutron star every 133 days. This pulsar was the first one which was also verified in the optical part of the spectrum.
History of Observation:
The very first recorded information on this supernova event reaches as far back as July 4, 1054 A.D. by Chinese astronomers who marked the presence of a “new star” visible in daylight for 23 days and 653 nights. The event may have also been recorded by the Anasazi, Navajo and Mimbres First Nations of North America in their artwork as well.
In more modern times, the nebula was cataloged as a discovery by British amateur astronomer John Bevis in 1731, and independently by Charles Messier on August 28th, 1758 while looking for the return of Comet Halley. Although Bevis had added it to his “Uranographia Britannica”, Messier recognized what he had located had no proper motion, and was therefore not a comet. However, Messier did credit Bevis’ discovery when he learned of it years later.
By September 12th, 1758, Messier hit upon the idea of compiling a catalog of objects that weren’t comets, in order to help other astronomers avoid similar mistakes. Considering M1’s position, only slightly more than a degree from the ecliptic plane, this was a very good idea. Especially since M1 was again confused with Halley’s Comet when it returned in 1835.
The name Crab Nebula was first suggested by William Parsons, the Third Earl of Rosse, who observed it while at Birr Castle in 1884. The name was apparently due to the drawing he made of it, which resembled a crab. When he observed it again in 1848 using a ]telescope with better resolution, he could not confirm the resemblance. But the name had become popular by this point and has stuck ever since.
All of the early observers – including Herschel, Bode, Messier and Lassell – apparently mistook the filamentary structures of the Nebula as an indication of stellar structure. As Messier himself described it:
“Nebula above the southern horn of Taurus, it doesn’t contain any star; it is a whitish light, elongated in the shape of a flame of a candle, discovered while observing the comet of 1758. See the chart of that comet, Mem. Acad. of the year 1759, page 188; observed by Dr. Bevis in about 1731. It is reported on the English Celestial Atlas.”
Sir Williams Herschel’s writing on the nebula appeared in the 74th volume of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, which was released in 1784. As he described it:
“To these may added the 1st [M1], 3d, 27, 33, 57, 79, 81, 82, 101 [of Messier’s catalog], which in my 7, 10, and 20-feet reflectors shewed a mottled kind of nebulosity, which I shall call resolvable; so that I expect my present telescope will, perhaps, render the stars visible of which I suppose them to be composed…”
But it was Parsons (aka. Lord Rosse) who first recognized M1 for what we know it as today. As he recorded when viewing it for the first time (in 1844):
“Fig. 81 is also a cluster; we perceive in this [36-inch telescope], however, a considerable change of appearance; it is no longer an oval resolvable [mottled] Nebula; we see resolvable filaments singularly disposed, springing principally from its southern extremity, and not, as is usual in clusters, irregularly in all directions. Probably greater power would bring out other filaments, and it would then assume the ordinary form of a cluster. It is stubbed with stars, mixed however with a nebulosity probably consisting of stars too minute to be recognized. It is an easy object, and I have shown it to many, and all have been at once struck with its remarkable aspect. Everything in the sketch can be seen under moderately favourable circumstances.”
Locating Messier 1:
The Crab Nebula is easily visible in the night sky near the Taurus constellation, whenever light pollution is not an issue. It can be located by identifying Zeta Tauri, a third magnitude star located east/northeast of Aldebaran. With dark sky conditions, it can be seen as a tiny, hazy patch with binoculars and small telescopes with low magnification. If sky conditions are bright, it may be harder to locate with modest equipment.
With a little more magnification, it is seen as a nebulous oval patch, surrounded by haze. In telescopes starting with 4-inch aperture, some detail in its shape becomes apparent, with some suggestion of mottled or streak structure in the inner part of the nebula. To the amateur astronomer, M1 does indeed look similar to a faint comet without a tail.
As Messier 1 is situated only 1 1/2 degrees from the ecliptic, there are frequent conjunctions and occasional transits of planets, as well as occultations by the Moon. And for the sake of simplicity, here are the vital statistics on this Messier Object:
Wow. This video will knock your socks off … at least it did mine. This new flyover video of Ceres was created using enhanced images taken by the Dawn spacecraft’s framing camera. It was produced by the camera team at the German Aerospace Center, DLR, using images from Dawn’s high-altitude mapping orbit of 900 miles (1,450 kilometers) above Ceres’ surface. The video shows a stark and stunning world.
“The viewer can observe the sheer walls of the crater Occator, and also Dantu and Yalode, where the craters are a lot flatter,” said Ralf Jaumann, a Dawn mission scientist at DLR.
The enhanced color used here helps to highlight subtle differences in the appearance of surface materials. There’s additional info at the end of the video, but for a quick reference, area with shades of blue contain younger, fresher material such as flows, pits and cracks, while brown areas clays, which, enticingly, usually form in the presence of water.
I had the chance to visit with Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer and mission director at JPL earlier this month, when I interviewed him for a book I’m working on about robotic space exploration. One thing he really stressed is that Ceres is a big place, with diverse terrain and a variety of features. This video really brings that home.
“Ceres has a surface area of 2,770,000 square kilometers … It’s a big surface and we haven’t seen all of it,” Rayman said. “It will be great to see what the new detail shows from the low altitude orbit, because those pictures will be four times better resolution than pictures we were able to get at our previous orbit.”
Dawn is now in its final and lowest mapping orbit, at about 240 miles (385 kilometers) from the surface.
This animated flight over Ceres emphasizes the most prominent craters, such as Occator, Dantu, and the tall, conical mountain Ahuna Mons.
The bright features seen in Occator Crater have been determined to be salts, which are quite reflective and look bright to our eyes (sorry no alien city lights) and the team will be providing more details and images soon.
On the road to restoring US Human spaceflight from US soil, SpaceX conducted a pair of key tests involving a propulsive hover test and parachute drop test for their Crew Dragon vehicle which is slated to begin human missions in 2017.
SpaceX released a short video showing the Dragon 2 vehicle executing a “picture-perfect propulsive hover test” on a test stand at the firms rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas.
The video published last week shows the Dragon 2 simultaneously firing all eight of its side mounted SuperDraco engines, during a five second test carried out on Nov. 22, 2015.
Using the SuperDragos will eventually enable pinpoint propulsive soft landings like a helicopter in place of parachute assisted landings in the ocean or on the ground.
The video clip seen below includes both full speed and slow motion versions of the test, showing the vehicle rising and descending slowly on the test stand.
Video caption: SpaceX Dragon 2 crew vehicle, powered by eight SuperDraco engines, conducts propulsive hover test firing at rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas.
The eight SuperDraco thrusters are mounted in sets 90 degrees apart around the perimeter of the vehicle in pairs called “jet packs.”
The SuperDracos generate a combined total of 33,000 lbs of thrust.
SpaceX is developing the Crew Dragon under the Commercial Crew Program (CCP) awarded by NASA to transport crews of four or more astronauts to the International Space Station.
“This test was the second of a two-part milestone under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program,” said SpaceX officials. “The first test—a short firing of the engines intended to verify a healthy propulsion system—was completed November 22, and the longer burn two-days later demonstrated vehicle control while hovering.”
The first unmanned and manned orbital test flights of the crew Dragon are expected sometime in 2017. A crew of two NASA astronauts should fly on the first crewed test before the end of 2017.
Initially, the Crew Dragon will land via parachutes in the ocean before advancing to use of pinpoint propulsive landing.
Thus SpaceX recently conducted a parachute drop test involving deployment of four red-and-white parachutes unfurling high above the desert near Coolidge, Arizona using a mass simulator in place of the capsule.
Video Caption: SpaceX performed a successful test of its parachute system for the Crew Dragon spacecraft near Coolidge, Arizona, as part of its final development and certification work with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Using a weight simulant in the place of a boilerplate spacecraft, four main parachutes were rigged to deploy just as they would when the Crew Dragon returns to Earth with astronauts aboard. Credit: NASA/SpaceX
“The mass simulator and parachutes were released thousands of feet above the ground from a C-130 cargo aircraft. This test evaluated the four main parachutes, but did not include the drogue chutes that a full landing system would utilize,” said NASA.
Since the CCP program finally received full funding from Congress in the recently passed Fiscal Year 2016 NASA budget, the program is currently on track to achieve the orbital test flight milestones.
Boeing and SpaceX were awarded contracts by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in September 2014 worth $6.8 Billion to complete the development and manufacture of the privately developed Starliner CST-100 and Crew Dragon astronaut transporters under the agency’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program and NASA’s Launch America initiative.
The Crew Dragon will launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. The historic launch pad has been leased by SpaceX from NASA and is being refurbished for launches of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.