Tom Bridgman works at NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio (SVS) creating amazing data-driven visual content using space science data from NASA initiatives for education and public outreach.
After earning his PhD in physics and astronomy, Tom worked as an instrument specialist at the Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory before joining the SVS at Goddard.
The invention of the rocket changed space science forever. The Universe could only be inspected from the surface of the Earth, with all that atmosphere in the way, until rockets were invented. And as far as the modern age of rocketry goes, it all started 90 years ago with Robert Goddard’s liquid-fuelled rocket.
Goddard was a dreamer. He envisioned rocket-powered spacecraft plying the solar system. Obviously, he passed away before interplanetary travel materialized, but his work on rocketry certainly laid the groundwork for that eventual achievement. The Goddard Space Flight Center is named after him, and it’s doubtful that any engineering or technology student in the world doesn’t know who he is.
Goddard’s first liquid-fuelled rocket was modest by today’s standards, of course. But he had to solve several technical challenges to achieve it, and his ability to solve these challenges led to not only this first flight, but to a total of 34 rocket flights in 15 years, from 1926 to 1941. His rockets reached the altitude of 2.6 km (1.6 miles) and speeds of 885 km/h (550 mph.) He also patented 214 inventions.
Goddard is considered the father of modern rocket science, but he is actually one of three men who are considered the main contributors to modern rocketry. Russian Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1858-1935) and German Hermann Oberth (1894-1989) are the other founding fathers of modern rocketry.
Goddard didn’t invent rocketry, of course. The Chinese used rockets as far back as the 13th century, and rockets made appearances throughout history as weapons and fireworks. But Goddard’s success at liquid-fuelled rocketry, and the capabilities that came with it, is when rocketry really got off the ground. (Sorry.)
Nowadays, Goddard is understood to be a driven and highly-intelligent person, the type of person who is responsible for advancing science and technology. But back in his time, before he had successful flights, he and his ideas were ridiculed. Check out this criticism from the New York Times, January 13th, 1920:
“That Professor Goddard, with his ‘chair’ in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react — to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.”
Stinging words, to be sure, but people who know anything about the history of science are familiar with this kind of condemnation of brilliant people, coming from those who lack vision.
Now of course, we have huge rockets. Great thundering beasts that lift enormous loads out of Earth’s gravity well. And we’re so accustomed to rocket launches now that they barely make news. But I always get a kick out of imagining what people like Goddard would feel if they were able to view a launch of one of today’s behemoths, like the Ariane 5. I’m sure his chest would swelled with pride, and he would be amazed at what people have accomplished.
But his vindication wouldn’t just come from the huge leaps we’ve made in rocket technology, and the huge rockets we now routinely launch. It would also come from this retraction, delivered decades too late but with class, by the New York Times, on July 17 1969, the day after Apollo 11 launched:
Further investigation and experimentation have confirmed the findings of Isaac Newton in the 17th Century and it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.
NASA GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTER, MD – Rigorous testing has begun on the advanced robotic arm and boulder extraction mechanisms that are key components of the unmanned probe at the heart of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM) now under development to pluck a multi-ton boulder off a near-Earth asteroid so that astronauts visiting later in an Orion crew capsule can harvest a large quantity of samples for high powered scientific analysis back on Earth. Universe Today inspected the robotic arm hardware utilizing “leveraged robotic technology” during an up close visit and exclusive interview with the engineering development team at NASA Goddard.
“The teams are making great progress on the capture mechanism that has been delivered to the robotics team at Goddard from Langley,” NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot told Universe Today.
“NASA is developing these common technologies for a suite of missions like satellite servicing and refueling in low Earth orbit as well as autonomously capturing an asteroid about 100 million miles away,” said Ben Reed, NASA Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office (SSCO) Deputy Project Manager, during an exclusive interview and hardware tour with Universe Today at NASA Goddard in Greenbelt, Maryland, regarding concepts and goals for the overall Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) initiative.
The unmanned Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM) to grab a boulder is the essential first step towards carrying out the follow on sample retrieval with the manned Orion Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) by the mid-2020s.
ARRM will use a pair of highly capable robotic arms to autonomously grapple a multi-ton (> 20 ton) boulder off the surface of a large near-Earth asteroid and transport it to a stable, astronaut accessible orbit around the Moon in cislunar space.
“Things are moving well. The teams have made really tremendous progress on the robotic arm and capture mechanism,” Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, told Universe Today.
Then an Orion crew capsule can fly to it and the astronauts will collect a large quantity of rock samples and gather additional scientific measurements.
“We are working on a system to rendezvous, capture and service different [target] clients using the same technologies. That is what we are working on in a nut shell,” Reed said.
“Right now the plan is to launch ARRM by about December 2020,” Reed told me. But a huge amount of preparatory work across the US is required to turn NASA’s plan into reality.
Key mission enabling technologies are being tested right now with a new full scale engineering model of the ‘Robotic Servicing Arm’ and a full scale mockup of the boulder snatching ARRM Capture Module at NASA Goddard, in a new facility known as “The Cauldron.”
The ARRM capture module is comprised of two shorter robotic arms (separated by 180 degrees) and three lengthy contact and restraint system capture legs (separated by 120 degrees) attached to a cradle with associated avionics, computers and electronics and the rest of the spacecraft and solar electric power arrays.
“The robotic arm we have here now is an engineering development unit. The 2.2 meter-long arms can be used for assembling large telescopes, repairing a failed satellite, removing orbital debris and capturing an asteroid,” said Reed.
“There are two little arms and three big capture legs.”
“So, we are leveraging one technology development program into multiple NASA objectives.”
“We are working on common technologies that can service a legacy orbiting satellite, not designed to be serviced, and use those same technologies with some tweaking that we can go out with 100 million miles and capture an asteroid and bring it back to the vicinity of the Moon.”
“Currently the [capture module] system can handle a boulder that’s up to about 3 x 4 x 5 meters in diameter.”
The Cauldron is a brand new Goddard facility for testing technologies and operations for multiple exploration and science missions, including satellite servicing and ARRM that just opened in June 2015 for the centers Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office.
Overall project lead for ARRM is the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) with numerous contributions from other NASA centers and industrial partners.
“This is an immersive development lab where we bring systems together and can do lifetime testing to simulate what’s in space. This is our robotic equivalent to the astronauts NBL, or neutral buoyancy lab,” Reed elaborated.
“So with this same robotic arm that can cut wires and thermal blankets and refuel an Earth sensing satellite, we can now have that same arm go out on a different mission and be able to travel out and pick up a multi-ton boulder and bring it back for astronauts to harvest samples from.”
“So that’s quite a technical feat!”
The Robotic Servicing Arm is a multi-jointed powerhouse designed to function like a “human arm” as much as possible. It builds on extensive prior research and development investment efforts conducted for NASA’s current Red Planetrovers and a flight-qualified robotic arm developed for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
“The arm is capable of seven-degrees-of-freedom to mimic the full functionally of a human arm. It has heritage from the arm on Mars right now on Curiosity as well as ground based programs from DARPA,” Reed told me.
“It has three degrees of freedom at our shoulder, two at our elbow and two more at the wrist. So I can hold the hand still and move the elbow.”
The arm will also be equipped with a variety of interchangeable “hands” that are basically tools to carry out different tasks with the asteroid such as grappling, drilling, sample gathering, imaging and spectrometric analysis, etc.
The ARRM spacecraft will carefully study, characterize and photograph the asteroid in great detail for about a month before attempting the boulder capture.
Why does the arm need all this human-like capability?
“When we arrive at an asteroid that’s 100 million miles away, we are not going to know the fine local geometry until we arrive,” Reed explained to Universe Today.
“Therefore we need a flexible enough arm that can accommodate local geometries at the multi-foot scale. And then a gripper tool that can handle those geometry facets at a much smaller scale.”
“Therefore we chose seven-degrees-of-freedom to mimic humans very much by design. We also need seven-degrees-of-freedom to conduct collision avoidance maneuvers. You can’t do that with a six-degree-of-freedom arm. It has to be seven to be a general purpose arm.”
How will the ARRM capture module work to snatch the boulder off the asteroid?
“So the idea is you come to the mother asteroid and touch down and make contact on the surface. Then you hold that position and the two arms reach out and grab the boulder.”
“Once its grabbed the boulder, then the legs straighten and pull the boulder off the surface.”
“Then the arms nestle the asteroid onto a cradle. And the legs then change from a contact system to become a restraint system. So the legs wrap around the boulder to restrain it for the 100 million mile journey back home.
“After that the little arms can let go – because the legs have wrapped around and are holding the asteroid.”
“So now the arm can also let go of the gripper system and pick up a different tool to do other things. For example they can collect a sample with another tool. And maybe assist an astronaut after the crew arrives.”
“During the 100 million mile journey back to lunar orbit they can be also be preparing the surface and cutting into it for later sample collection by the astronauts.”
Be sure to watch this video animation:
Since the actual asteroid encounter will occur very far away, the boulder grappling will have to be done fully autonomously since there will be no possibility for real time communications.
“The return time for communications is like about 30 minutes. So ‘human in the loop’ control is out of the question.
“Once we get into hover position over the landing site we hit the GO button. Then it will be very much like at Mars and the seven minutes of terror. It will take awhile to find out if it worked.”
Therefore the team at Goddard has already spent years of effort and practice sessions just to get ready for working with the early engineering version of the arm to maximize the probability of a successful capture.
“In this facility we put systems together to try and practice and rehearse and simulate as much of the mission as is realistically possible.”
“It took a lot of effort to get to this point, in the neighborhood of four years to get the simulation to behave correctly in real time with contact dynamics and the robotic systems. So the arm has to touch the boulder with force torque sensors and feed that into a computer to measure that and move the actuators to respond accordingly.”
“So the capture of the boulder is autonomous. The rest is teleoperated from the ground, but not the capture itself.”
How realistic are the rehearsals?
“We are practicing here by reaching out with the arm to grasp the client target using autonomous capture [procedures]. In space the client [target] is floating and maybe tumbling. So when we reach out with the arm to practice autonomous capture we make the client tumble and move – with the inertial properties of the target we are practicing on.”
“Now for known objects like satellites we know the mass precisely. And we can program all that inertial property data in very accurately to give us much more realistic simulations.”
“We learned from all our astronaut servicing experiences in orbit is that the more we know for the simulations, the easier and better the results are for the astronauts during an actual mission because you simulated all the properties.”
“But with this robotic mission to an asteroid there is no backup like astronauts. So we want to practice here at Goddard and simulate the space environment.”
ARRM will launch by the end of 2020 on either an SLS, Delta IV Heavy or a Falcon Heavy. NASA has not yet chosen the launch vehicle.
Several candidate asteroids have already been discovered and NASA has an extensive ongoing program to find more.
Again, this robotic technology was selected for development for ARRM because it has a lot in common with other objectives like fixing communications satellites, refueling satellites and building large telescopes in the future.
NASA is also developing other critical enabling technologies for the entire ARM project like solar electric propulsion that will be the subject of another article.
Therefore NASA is leveraging one technology development program into multiple spaceflight objectives that will greatly assist its plans to send ‘Humans to Mars’ in the 2030s with the Orion crew module launched by the monster Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.
The maiden uncrewed launch of the Orion/SLS stack is slated for November 2018.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.
Our Sun is constantly sending a hot stream of charged atomic particles out into space in all directions. Pouring out from holes in the Sun’s corona, this solar wind flows through the Solar System at speeds of over 400 km/s (that’s 893,000 mph). When it encounters magnetic fields, like those generated by planets, the flow of particles is deflected into a bow shock — but not necessarily in a uniform fashion. Turbulence can occur just like in air flows on Earth, and “space weather” results.
One of the more curious effects is a regional reversal of the flow of solar wind particles. Called a “hot flow anomaly,” or HFA, these energetic phenomena occur almost daily in Earth’s magnetic field, as well as on Jupiter and Saturn, and even on Mars and Venus where the magnetic fields are weak (but there are still planets blocking the stream of charged particles.)
Not to be left out in the cold, Mercury is now known to display HFAs, which have been detected for the first time by the MESSENGER spacecraft.
The first measurement was of magnetic fields that can be used to detect giant electric current sheets that lead to HFAs. The second was of the heating of the charged particles. The scientists then analyzed this information to quantify what kind of turbulence exists in the region, which provided the final smoking gun of an HFA.
“Planets have a bow shock the same way a supersonic jet does,” explains Vadim Uritsky at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “These hot flow anomalies are made of very hot solar wind deflected off the bow shock.”
The solar wind is not 100% uniform; it has discontinuities within its own complex magnetic fields. When these shifting fields pile up against a planet’s bow shock they can create turbulence patterns that trap hot plasma, which in turn produces its own magnetic fields. The shockwaves, heat, and energy produced are powerful enough to actually reverse the flow of the solar wind within the HFA bulge.
And the word “hot” is putting it lightly — plasma temperatures in an HFA can reach 10 million degrees.
Mercury may be only a little larger than our Moon but it does possess an internally-generated dipolar magnetic field, unlike the Moon, Venus, and Mars which have only localized or shallow fields. The confirmed presence of HFAs on Mercury indicates that they may be a feature in all planetary bow shocks, regardless of how their magnetic fields — if any — are produced.
In related news, on June 17 MESSENGER successfully completed the first orbit adjustment maneuver to prepare it for its new — and final — low-altitude campaign, during which it will obtain its highest-resolution images ever of the planet’s surface and perform detailed investigations of its composition and magnetic field. Read more on the MESSENGER site here.
Are giant dragons flying out of the Sun? No, this is much more awesome than that: it’s an image of an X-class flare that erupted from active region 2017 on March 29, as seen by NASA’s Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) spacecraft. It was not only IRIS’s first view of such a powerful flare, but with four other solar observatories in space and on the ground watching at the same time it was the best-observed solar flare ever.
(But it does kind of look like a dragon. Or maybe a phoenix. Ah, pareidolia!)
Check out a video from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center below:
In addition to IRIS, the March 29 flare was observed by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), NASA’s Reuven Ramaty High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager (RHESSI), JAXA and NASA’s Hinode spacecraft, and the National Solar Observatory’s Dunn Solar Telescope in New Mexico.
With each telescope equipped with instruments specially designed to observe the Sun in specific wavelengths almost no detail of this particular flare went unnoticed, giving scientists comprehensive data on the complex behavior of a single solar eruption.
Also, for another look at this flare from SDO and a coronal dimming event apparently associated with it, check out Dean Pesnell’s entry on the SDO is GO! blog here.
Frame from a simulation of the merger of two black holes and the resulting emission of gravitational radiation (NASA/C. Henze)
The short answer? You get one super-SUPERmassive black hole. The longer answer?
Well, watch the video below for an idea.
This animation, created with supercomputers at the University of Colorado, Boulder, show for the first time what happens to the magnetized gas clouds that surround supermassive black holes when two of them collide.
The simulation shows the magnetic fields intensifying as they contort and twist turbulently, at one point forming a towering vortex that extends high above the center of the accretion disk.
This funnel-like structure may be partly responsible for the jets that are sometimes seen erupting from actively feeding supermassive black holes.
The simulation was created to study what sort of “flash” might be made by the merging of such incredibly massive objects, so that astronomers hunting for evidence of gravitational waves — a phenomenon first proposed by Einstein in 1916 — will be able to better identify their potential source.
Gravitational waves are often described as “ripples” in the fabric of space-time, infinitesimal perturbations created by supermassive, rapidly rotating objects like orbiting black holes. Detecting them directly has proven to be a challenge but researchers expect that the technology will be available within several years’ time, and knowing how to spot colliding black holes will be the first step in identifying any gravitational waves that result from the impact.
In fact, it’s the gravitational waves that rob energy from the black holes’ orbits, causing them to spiral into each other in the first place.
“The black holes orbit each other and lose orbital energy by emitting strong gravitational waves, and this causes their orbits to shrink. The black holes spiral toward each other and eventually merge,” said astrophysicist John Baker, a research team member from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “We need gravitational waves to confirm that a black hole merger has occurred, but if we can understand the electromagnetic signatures from mergers well enough, perhaps we can search for candidate events even before we have a space-based gravitational wave observatory.”
The video below shows the expanding gravitational wave structure that would be expected to result from such a merger:
If ground-based telescopes can pinpoint the radio and x-ray flash created by the mergers, future space telescopes — like ESA’s eLISA/NGO — can then be used to try and detect the waves.
Fossilized nodosaur footprints discovered at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. (NASA/GSFC/Rebecca Roth)
At NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD, where some of the world’s most advanced research in space technology is being performed on a daily basis, paleontologists have discovered ancient evidence of dinosaurs on the Center’s wooded campus — at least two, possibly a mother and child, crossed that way between 112 and 110 million years ago and left their muddy footprints as proof.
The tracks of two nodosaurs — short, stocky and heavily-armored herbivorous dinosaurs — have been confirmed by dinosaur tracker Ray Stanford and USGS emeritus paleontologist Dr. Robert Weems. The second track is a smaller version of the first.
The first, larger footprint was announced by Stanford on August 17. When Dr. Weems was called in to verify, the smaller print was discovered within the first, evidence that they were made around the same time and leading researchers to suggest it may have been a mother-and-child pair.
Dinosaur tracker Ray Stanford describes the cretaceous-era nodosaur track he found on the Goddard Space Flight Center campus with Dr. Robert Weems, emeritus paleontologist for the USGS who verified his discovery. (NASA/GSFC/Rebecca Roth)
“It looks to be a manus (front foot) print of a much smaller dinosaur than the first one, but it looks to be the same type,” Weems said of the second track. “If the one that came through was a female, it may have had one or more young ones following along. If you’ve seen a dog or cat walking with its young, they kind of sniff around and may not go in the same direction, but they end up in the same place.”
It’s thought that the nodosaurs were moving quickly since the tracks don’t show strong imprints of the animals’ heels. Still, the ruddy Cretaceous-era mud preserved their brief passage well — even as millions of years went by.
“This was a large, armored dinosaur,” Stanford said. “Think of it as a four-footed tank. It was quite heavy, there’s a quite a ridge or push-up here. Subsequently the sand was bound together by iron-oxide or hematite, so it gave us a nice preservation, almost like concrete.”
The next steps will be to have the site analyzed to determine whether further excavation is called for, and possibly to extract and preserve the existing footprints.
“Space scientists may walk along here, and they’re walking exactly where this big, bungling heavy armored dinosaur walked, maybe 110 to 112 million years ago.”
The bright object in the center of this video sequence is the planet Mercury, seen by NASA’s STEREO-B spacecraft as it was pummeled by wave after wave of solar material ejected from the Sun during the week of March 25 – April 2, 2012.
The video above was released by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center earlier today. The Sun is located just off-frame to the left, while Earth would be millions of miles to the right.
Proof that it’s not easy being first rock from the Sun!