Juno and the Deep Space Network: Bringing The Data Home

NASA's Deep Space Network is responsible for communicating with Juno as it explores Jupiter. Pictured is the Goldstone facility in California, one of three facilities that make up the Network. Image: NASA/JPL

The much-anticipated arrival of NASA’s Juno spacecraft at Jupiter is almost here. Juno will answer many questions about Jupiter, but at the cost of a mission profile full of challenges. One of those challenges is communicating with Juno as it goes about its business in the extreme radiation environment around Jupiter. Communications with Juno rely on a network of radio dishes in strategic locations around the world, receivers cooled to almost absolute zero, and a team of dedicated people.

The task of communicating with Juno falls to NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN), a system of three facilities around the world whose job it is to communicate with all of the spacecraft that venture outside Earth’s vicinity. That network is in the hands of Harris Corporation, experts in all sorts of communications technologies, who are contracted to run these crucial facilities.

The person responsible is Sonny Giroux, DSN Program Manager at Harris. In an interview with Universe Today, Sonny explained how the DSN works, and describes some of the challenges the Juno mission poses.

“The network itself consists of three primary communication facilities; one in Goldstone, California, out in the middle of the Mojave Desert. The other facility is in Madrid Spain, and the third is in Canberra Australia. These three facilities are separated by about 120 degrees, which means that any spacecraft that’s out there is capable of communicating with Earth at any point in time,” said Giroux.

Deep Space Network facilities are positioned 120 degrees apart to give total sky coverage. Image: NASA/JPL
Deep Space Network facilities are positioned 120 degrees apart to give total sky coverage. Image: NASA/JPL

“Each facility has several antennae, the largest of which is 70 m in diameter, about the size of a football field. These antennae can be aimed at any angle. Then there are smaller antennae at 34 m in size, and we have a number of those at each complex.”

According to Giroux, the dishes can work independently, or be arrayed together, depending on requirements. At the DSN website, you can see which antenna is communicating with which of NASA’s missions at any time.

At the Deep Space Network's website, you can see which of the network's dishes are communicating with which spacecraft. Image: NASA/JPL/DSN
At the Deep Space Network’s website, you can see which of the network’s dishes are communicating with which spacecraft. During Juno’s mission, you can expect to see its name beside many of the dishes. Image: NASA/JPL/DSN

Juno is a complex mission with a dynamic orbit, and Jupiter itself is an extreme radiation environment. Juno will have to weave its way through Jupiter’s radiation belts in its polar orbit. According to Giroux, this creates additional communication problems for the DSN.

“As Juno goes into its orbital insertion phase, the spacecraft will have to turn away from Earth. Our signal strength will drop dramatically,” Giroux said. “In order to capture the data that Juno is going to send, we’re going to array all of our antennae at Goldstone and Canberra together.”

Juno's orbit around Jupiter will be highly elliptical as it contends with Jupiter's powerful radiation belts. Image: NASA/JPL
Juno’s orbit around Jupiter will be highly elliptical as it contends with Jupiter’s powerful radiation belts. Image: NASA/JPL

This means that a total of 9 antennae will be arrayed in two groups to communicate with Juno. The 4 dishes at the Canberra, Australia site will be arrayed together, and the 5 dishes at the Goldstone, California site will be arrayed together.

This combined strength is crucial to the success of Juno during JOI (Juno Orbital Insertion.) Said Giroux, “We need to bring Juno’s signal strength up to the maximum amount that we can. We need to know what phases Juno is in as it executes its sequence.”

“We’ve never arrayed all of our antennae together like this. This is a first for Juno.”

This combined receiving power is a first for the DSN, and another first for the Juno mission. “We’ve never arrayed all of our antennae together like this,” said Giroux. “This is a first for Juno. We’ve done a couple together before for a spacecraft like Voyager, which is pretty far out there, but never all of them like this. In order to maximize our success with Juno, we’re arraying everything. It will be the first time in our history that we’ve had to array together all of our assets.”

Arraying multiple dishes together provides another benefit too, as Giroux told us. “The DSN is able to have two centres view the spacecraft at the same time. If one complex goes down for whatever reason, we would have the other one still available to communicate with the spacecraft.”

The most visible part of the DSN are the antennae themselves. But the electronics at the heart of the system are just as important. And they’re unique in the world, too.

“We cool them down to almost absolute zero to remove all of the noise out.”

“We have very specialized receivers that are built for the DSN. We cool them down to almost absolute zero to remove all of the noise out. That allows us to really focus on the signal that we’re looking for. These are unique to DSN,” said Giroux.

Juno itself has four different transmitters on-board. Some are able to transmit a lot of data, and some can transmit less. These will be active at different times, and form part of the challenge of communicating with Juno. Giroux told us, “Juno will be cycling through all four as it performs its insertion and comes back out again on the other side of the planet.”

“We just get the ones and zeroes…”

The DSN is a communications powerhouse, the most powerful tool ever devised for communicating in space. But it doesn’t handle the science. “DSN for the most part will receive whatever the spacecraft is sending to us. We just get the ones and zeroes and relay that data over to the mission. It’s the mission that breaks that down and turns it into science data.”

The three facilities that make up the DSN. Each is separated by 120 degrees. Image: NASA/JPL
The three facilities that make up the DSN. Each is separated by 120 degrees. Image: NASA/JPL

Juno will be about 450 million miles away at Jupiter, which is about a 96 minute round trip for any signal. That great distance means that Juno’s signal strength is extremely weak. But it won’t be the weakest signal that the DSN contends with. A testament to the strength of the DSN is the fact that it’s still receiving transmissions from the Voyager probes, which are transmitting at miniscule power levels. According to Giroux, “Voyager is at a billionth of a billionth of a watt in terms of its signal strength.”

Juno is different than other missions like New Horizons and Voyager 1 and 2. Once Juno is done, it will plunge into Jupiter and be destroyed. So all of its data has to be captured quickly and efficiently. According to Giroux, that intensifies the DSN’s workload for the Juno mission.

“Juno is different. We’ve got to make sure to capture that data regularly.”

“Juno has a very defined mission length, with start and stop dates. It will de-orbit into Jupiter when it’s finished its science phase. That’s different than other missions like New Horizons where it has long periods where its able to download all of the data it’s captured. Juno is different. We’ve got to make sure to capture that data regularly. After JOI we’ll be in constant communication with Juno to make sure that’s happening.”

To whet our appetites, the ESO has released these awesome IR images of Jupiter, taken by the VLT. Credit: ESO
In preparation for the arrival of Juno, the ESO’s released stunning IR images of Jupiter, taken by the VLT. Credit: ESO

The next most important event in Juno’s mission is its orbital insertion around Jupiter, and Giroux and the team are waiting for that just like the rest of us are. “Juno’s big burn as it slows itself enough to be captured by Jupiter is a huge milestone that we’ll be watching for,” said Giroux.

The first signal that the DSN receives will be a simple three second beep. “Confirmation of the insertion will occur at about 9:40 p.m.,” said Giroux. That signal will have been sent about 45 minutes before that, but the enormous distance between Earth and Jupiter means a long delay in receiving it. But once we receive it, it will tell us that Juno has finished firing its engine for orbital insertion. Real science data, including images of Jupiter, will come later.

“We want to see a successful mission as much as anybody else.”

All of the data from the DSN flows through the nerve center at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. When the signal arrives indicating that Juno has fired its engines successfully, Giroux and his team will be focussed on that facility, where news of Juno’s insertion will first be received. And they’ll be as excited as the rest of us to hear that signal.

“We want to see a successful mission as much as anybody else. Communicating with spacecraft is our business. We’ll be watching the same channels and websites that everybody else will be watching with bated breath,” said Giroux.

“Its great to be a part of the network. It’s pretty special.”

Weekly Space Hangout – May 27, 2016: Dr. Seth Shostak

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Special Guest:
Dr. Seth Shostak is the Senior Astronomer at the SETI Institute. He also heads up the International Academy of Astronautics’ SETI Permanent Committee. In addition, Seth is keen on outreach activities: interesting the public – and especially young people – in science in general, and astrobiology in particular. He’s co-authored a college textbook on astrobiology, and has written three trade books on SETI. In addition, he’s published more than 400 popular articles on science — including regular contributions to both the Huffington Post and Discover Magazine blogs — gives many dozens of talks annually, and is the host of the SETI Institute’s weekly science radio show, “Big Picture Science.”

Guests:
Paul M. Sutter (pmsutter.com / @PaulMattSutter)
Kimberly Cartier (@AstroKimCartier )
Jolene Creighton (fromquarkstoquasars.com / @futurism)
Nicole Gugliucci (cosmoquest.org / @noisyastronomer)
Brian Koberlein (@briankoberlein / briankoberlein.com)

Their stories this week:
“Fresh” Lunar Craters

Faintest early-universe galaxy detected

Update on NASA’s Juno Mission

Europa’s ocean may have Earth-like chemical balance

Do Primordial Black Holes Solve Dark Matter?

India Successfully Launches Tiny Reusable Space Shuttle

30 KM Wide Asteroid Impacted Australia 3.4 Billion Years Ago

MeerKAT First Images

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+!

Weekly Space Hangout – Jan. 22, 2016: Dr. Stuart Robbins

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Special Guest: Dr. Stuart Robbins, Research Scientist at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI); Mars Impact Craters, Science Lead on Moon Mappers and Mercury Mappers.

Guests:
Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @MorganRehnberg )
Kimberly Cartier (@AstroKimCartier )
Dave Dickinson (@astroguyz / www.astroguyz.com)
Jolene Creighton (@futurism / fromquarkstoquasars.com)
Pamela Gay (cosmoquest.org / @cosmoquestx / @starstryder)
Brian Koberlein (@briankoberlein / briankoberlein.com)
Continue reading “Weekly Space Hangout – Jan. 22, 2016: Dr. Stuart Robbins”

Understanding Juno’s Orbit: An Interview with NASA’s Scott Bolton

The intense radiation around Jupiter has shaped every aspect of the Juno mission, especially Juno’s orbit. Data shows that there is a gap between the radiation belts that encircle Jupiter, and Jupiter’s cloud tops. Juno will have to ‘thread the needle’ and travel through this gap, in order to minimize its exposure to radiation, and to fulfill its science objectives. Adding to the complexity of the Juno mission, is the fact that the design of the spacecraft, the scientific objectives, and the orbital requirements all shaped each other.

I wasn’t sure what question to start this interview with: How did the conditions around Jupiter, most notably its extreme radiation, shape Juno’s orbit? Or, how did the orbit necessary for Juno to survive Jupiter’s extreme radiation shape Juno’s science objectives? Or, finally, how did the science objectives shape Juno’s orbit?

Scott Bolton, NASA Principal Investigator for the Juno mission to Jupiter. Image Credit: NASA

As you can see, the Juno mission seems like a bit of a Gordian knot. All three questions, I’m sure, had to be asked and answered several times, with the answers shaping the other questions. To help untangle this knot, I spoke to Scott Bolton, NASA’s Principal Investigator for the Juno mission. As the person responsible for the entire Juno mission, Scott has a complete understanding of Juno’s science objectives, Juno’s design, and the orbital path Juno will follow around Jupiter.

Continue reading “Understanding Juno’s Orbit: An Interview with NASA’s Scott Bolton”

Protecting Juno’s Heart

Juno computer generated image. NASA/JPL-CalTech

Each new probe we launch into space follows a finely-tuned, predetermined trajectory that opens up a new avenue of understanding into our solar system and our universe. The results from each probe shapes the objectives of the next. Each probe is built with maximum science in mind, and is designed to answer crucial questions and build our understanding of astronomy, cosmology, astrophysics, and planetary studies.

The Juno probe is no different. When it arrives at Jupiter in July 2016, it will begin working on a checklist of scientific questions about Jupiter.

But there’s a problem.

upiter's structure and composition. (Image Credit: Kelvinsong CC by S.A. 3.0)
Jupiter’s structure and composition. (Image Credit: Kelvinsong CC by S.A. 3.0)

Jupiter is enormous. And at it’s heart is a chunk of ice and rock, or so we think. Surrounding that is an enormous region of liquid metallic hydrogen. This core is 10 to 20 times as massive as Earth’s, and it’s rotating. As it rotates, it generates a powerful magnetic field that draws in particles from the sun, then whips them into a near-light-speed frenzy. This whirlwind of radiation devastates anything that gets too close.

Enter the tiny Juno spacecraft, about the size of a bus. Juno has to get close to Jupiter to do its work—within 5,000km (3,100 miles) above the cloud tops—and though it’s designed to weave its way carefully past Jupiter’s most dangerous radiation fields, its orbits will still expose it to the paper-shredder effect of those fields. There’s no way around it.

Juno Project Scientist Steve Levin, and Dave Stevenson from Caltech explain Juno’s orbiting pattern in this short video:

The most vulnerable part of Juno is the sensitive electronics that are the heart and brains of the spacecraft. Jupiter’s extreme radiation would quickly destroy Juno’s sensitive systems, and the Juno designers had to come up with a way to protect those components while Juno does its work. The solution? The titanium vault.

Technician's install Juno's titanium vault. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LMSS)
Technician’s install Juno’s titanium vault. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LMSS)

All kinds of materials and methods have been employed to protect spacecraft electronics, but this is the first time that titanium has been tried. Titanium is renowned for its light weight and its strength. It’s used in all kinds of demanding manufacturing applications here on Earth.

The titanium vault won’t protect Juno’s heart forever. In fact, some of the components are not expected to last the length of the mission. The radiation will slowly degrade the titanium, as high velocity particles punch microscopic holes in it. Bit by bit, radiation will perforate the vault, and the electronics within will be exposed. And as the electronic systems stop functioning, one by one, Juno will slowly become brain-dead, before plunging purposefully into Jupiter.

But Juno won’t die in vain. It will answer important questions about Jupiter’s core, atmospheric composition, planetary evolution, magnetosphere, polar auroras, gravitational field, and more. The spacecraft’s onboard camera, the Junocam, also promises to capture stunning images of Jupiter. But beyond all that, Juno—and its titanium vault—will show us how good we are at protecting spacecraft from extreme radiation.

Juno is still over 160 million km (100 million miles) from Jupiter and is fully functional. Once it arrives, it will insert itself into orbit and begin to do its job. How well it can do its job, and for how long, will depend on how effectively the titanium vault shields Juno’s heart.

OSIRIS-REx Asteroid Sampler Enters Final Assembly

OSIRIS-Rex, NASA’s first ever spacecraft designed to collect and retrieve pristine samples of an asteroid for return to Earth has entered its final assembly phase.

Approximately 17 months from now, OSIRIS-REx is slated to launch in the fall of 2016 and visit asteroid Bennu, a carbon-rich asteroid.

Bennu is a near-Earth asteroid and was selected for the sample return mission because it “could hold clues to the origin of the solar system and host organic molecules that may have seeded life on Earth,” says NASA.

The spacecraft is equipped with a suite of five science instruments to remotely study the 492 meter meter wide asteroid.

Eventually it will gather rocks and soil and bring at least a 60-gram (2.1-ounce) sample back to Earth in 2023 for study by researchers here with all the most sophisticated science instruments available.

The precious sample would land arrive at Utah’s Test and Training Range in a sample return canister similar to the one for the Stardust spacecraft.

The OSIRIS-REx – which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer – spacecraft passed a critical decision milestone on the road to launch and has been officially authorized by NASA to transition into this next mission phase.

The decision meeting to give the go ahead for final assembly was held at NASA Headquarters in Washington on March 30 and was chaired by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, led by former astronaut John Grunsfeld who was the lead spacewalker on the final shuttle servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope in 2009.

“This is an exciting time for the OSIRIS-REx team,” said Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for OSIRIS-Rex at the University of Arizona, Tucson, in a stetement.

“After almost four years of intense design efforts, we are now proceeding with the start of flight system assembly. I am grateful for the hard work and team effort required to get us to this point.”

In a clean room facility near Denver, Lockheed Martin  technicians began assembling a NASA spacecraft that will collect samples of an asteroid for scientific study. Working toward a September 2016 launch, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will be the first U.S. mission to return samples from an asteroid back to Earth.  Credit: Lockheed Martin
In a clean room facility near Denver, Lockheed Martin technicians began assembling a NASA spacecraft that will collect samples of an asteroid for scientific study. Working toward a September 2016 launch, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will be the first U.S. mission to return samples from an asteroid back to Earth. Credit: Lockheed Martin

The transition to the next phase known as ATLO (assembly, test and launch operations) is critical for the program because it is when the spacecraft physically comes together, says Lockheed Martin, prime contractor for OSIRIS-REx. Lockheed is building OSIRIS-Rex in their Denver assembly facility.

“ATLO is a turning point in the progress of our mission. After almost four years of intense design efforts, we are now starting flight system assembly and integration of the science instruments,” noted Lauretta.

Over the next six months, technicians will install on the spacecraft structure its many subsystems, including avionics, power, telecomm, mechanisms, thermal systems, and guidance, navigation and control, according to NASA.

“Building a spacecraft that will bring back samples from an asteroid is a unique opportunity,” said Rich Kuhns, OSIRIS-REx program manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, in a statement.

“We can feel the momentum to launch building. We’re installing the electronics in the next few weeks and shortly after we’ll power-on the spacecraft for the first time.”

OSIRIS-REx is scheduled for launch in September 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 411 rocket, which includes a 4-meter diameter payload fairing and one solid rocket motor. Only three Atlas V’s have been launched in this configuration.

“In just over 500 days, we will begin our seven-year journey to Bennu and back. This is an exciting time,” said Lauretta.

The spacecraft will reach Bennu in 2018 and return a sample to Earth in 2023.

Bennu is an unchanged remnant from the collapse of the solar nebula and birth of our solar system some 4.5 billion years ago, little altered over time.

The Atlas V with MMS launches, as seen by this camera placed in the front of the launchpad. Copyright © Alex Polimeni
OSIRIS-REx will launch in 2016 on an Atlas V similar to this one lofting NASA’s MMS satellites on March 12, 2015, as seen by this camera placed in the front of the launchpad. Copyright © Alex Polimeni

Significant progress in spacecraft assembly has already been accomplished at Lockheed’s Denver manufacturing facility.

“The spacecraft structure has been integrated with the propellant tank and propulsion system and is ready to begin system integration in the Lockheed Martin highbay,” said Mike Donnelly, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, in a statement.

“The payload suite of cameras and sensors is well into its environmental test phase and will be delivered later this summer/fall.”

OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program, following New Horizons to Pluto and Juno to Jupiter, which also launched on Atlas V rockets.

The most recent Atlas V launched NASA’s MMS quartet of Earth orbiting science probes on March 12, 2015.

OSIRIS-REx logo
OSIRIS-REx logo

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is responsible for overall mission management.

OSIRIS-REx complements NASA’s Asteroid Initiative – including the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) which is a robotic spacecraft mission aimed at capturing a surface boulder from a different near-Earth asteroid and moving it into a stable lunar orbit for eventual up close sample collection by astronauts launched in NASA’s new Orion spacecraft. Orion will launch atop NASA’s new SLS heavy lift booster concurrently under development.

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

Ken Kremer

Artist's concept of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft collecting a sample from asteroid 1999 RQ36. Credit: NASA
Artist’s concept of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft collecting a sample from asteroid 1999 RQ36. Credit: NASA
Juno soars skyward to Jupiter on Aug. 5, 2011 from launch pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 12:25 p.m. EDT. View from the VAB roof. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
OSIRIS-REx is the 3rd mission in NASA’s New Frontiers program. It follows NASA’s Juno orbiter seen here soaring skyward to Jupiter on Aug. 5, 2011 from launch pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 12:25 p.m. EDT. View from the VAB roof. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

You Can Vote to Name America’s New Rocket from ULA

Help ULA name America’s next rocket to space. Credit: ULA
Voting Details below
Watch ULA’s March 25 Delta Launch Live – details below
Update 3/26: 2 new names have been added to the voting list – Zeus and Vulcan !
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United Launch Alliance (ULA) is asking the public for your help in naming their new American made rocket, now under development that “represents the future of space”- and will replace the firms current historic lines of Atlas and Delta rocket families that began launching back near the dawn of the space age.

Eagle, Freedom or GalaxyOne – those are the names to choose from for the next two weeks, from now until April 6.

UPDATE 3/26: 2 new names have been added to the voting list – Zeus and Vulcan !

ULA says the names were selected from a list of over 400 names submitted earlier this year by ULA’s 3400 employees and many space enthusiasts.

ULA has set up a simple voting system whereby you can vote for your favorite name via text or an online webpage.

Currently dubbed the “Next Generation Launch System,” or NGLS, ULA’s new president and CEO Tory Bruno is set to unveil the next generation rockets design and name at the National Space Symposium on April 13 in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

“ULA’s new rocket represents the future of space – innovative, affordable and reliable,” said Bruno, in a statement.

“More possibilities in space means more possibilities here on earth. This is such a critical time for space travel and exploration and we’re excited to bring all of America with us on this journey into the future.”

The NGLS is ULA’s response to what’s shaping up as a no holds barred competition with SpaceX for future launch contracts where only the innovative and those who dramatically cut the cost of access to space will survive.

The first flight of the NGLS is slated for 2019.

Here’s how you can cast your vote for America’s next rocket to April 6, 2015:

Visit the website: http://bit.ly/rocketvote

OR

Voters can text 22333 to submit a vote for their favorite name. The following key can be used to text a vote:

• ULA1 for “Eagle”
• ULA2 for “Freedom”
• ULA3 for “GalaxyOne”

3/26 Update: Zeus and Vulcan have been added to the voting list

One small step for ULA, one giant leap for space exploration. Vote to name America’s next ride to space: Eagle, Freedom, or GalaxyOne? #rocketvote http://bit.ly/rocketvote
One small step for ULA, one giant leap for space exploration. Vote to name America’s next ride to space: Eagle, Freedom, or GalaxyOne? #rocketvote http://bit.ly/rocketvote

“Name America’s next ride to space. Vote early, vote often … ” says Bruno.

I have already voted – early and often.

Over 11,000 votes were tallied in just the first day.

Currently ULA is the nation’s premier launch provider, launching at a rate of about once per month. 13 launches are planned for 2015- as outlined in my earlier article here.

But ULA faces stiff and relentless pricing and innovative competition from NewSpace upstart SpaceX, founded by billionaire Elon Musk.

NGLS is ULA’s answer to SpaceX – they must compete in order to survive.

To date ULA has accomplished a 100 percent mission success for 94 launches since the firms founding in 2006 as a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. They have successfully launched numerous NASA, national security and commercial payloads into orbit and beyond.

Planetary missions launched for NASA include the Mars rovers and landers Phoenix and Curiosity, Pluto/New Horizons, Juno, GRAIL, LRO and LCROSS.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft onboard launches from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 41, Thursday, March 12, 2015, Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
ULA’s new rocket will launch from this pad in 2019
A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft onboard launches from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 41, Thursday, March 12, 2015, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

ULA’s most recent launch for NASA involved the $1.1 Billion Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission comprised of four formation flying satellites which blasted to Earth orbit atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, during a spectacular nighttime blastoff on March 12, 2015. Read my onsite reports – here and here.

“Space launch affects everyone, every day, and our goal in letting America name its next rocket is to help all Americans imagine the future of endless possibilities created by affordable space launch,” Bruno added.

NGLS will include some heritage design from the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, but will feature many new systems and potentially some reusable systems – to be outlined by Bruno on April 13.

ULA plans to phase out the Delta IV around 2019 when the current contracts are concluded. The Atlas V will continue for a transitional period.

The Atlas V is also the launcher for Boeing’s CST-100 manned space taxi due to first launch in 2017.

NGLS will launch from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, the same pad as for the Atlas V, as well as from Vandenberg AFB, Calif.

ULA’s next Delta IV launch with GPS IIF-9 is scheduled shortly for Wednesday, March 25, with liftoff at 2:36 p.m. EDT from Cape Canaveral.

Live webcast begins at 2:06 p.m. Live link here – http://www.ulalaunch.com/webcast.aspx

Vote now!

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

Ken Kremer

Tory Bruno, ULA President and CEO, speaks about the ULA launch of NASA’s Orion EFT-1 mission on Delta IV Heavy rocket in the background at the Delta IV launch complex 37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
Tory Bruno, ULA President and CEO, speaks about the ULA launch of NASA’s Orion EFT-1 mission on Delta IV Heavy rocket in the background at the Delta IV launch complex 37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

How NASA Is Saving Fuel On Its Outer Solar System Missions

Saturn. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI

While Saturn is far away from us, scientists have just found a way to make the journey there easier. A new technique pinpointed the position of the ringed gas giant to within just two miles (four kilometers).

It’s an impressive technological feat that will improve spacecraft navigation and also help us better understand the orbits of the outer planets, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) said.

It’s remarkable how much there is to learn about Saturn’s position given that the ancients discovered it, and it’s easily visible with the naked eye. That said, the new measurements with the Cassini  spacecraft and the Very Long Baseline Array radio telescope array are 50 times more precise than previous measurements with telescopes on the ground.

“This work is a great step toward tying together our understanding of the orbits of the outer planets of our solar system and those of the inner planets,” stated study leader Dayton Jones of JPL.

Saturn and its rings, as seen from above the planet by the Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute. Assembled by Gordan Ugarkovic.
Saturn and its rings, as seen from above the planet by the Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute/Gordan Ugarkovic

What’s even more interesting is scientists have been using the better information as it comes in. Cassini began using the improved method in 2013 to improve its precision when it fires its engines.

This, in the long term, leads to fuel savings — allowing the spacecraft a better chance of surviving through the end of its latest mission extension, which currently is 2017. (It’s been orbiting Saturn since 2004.)

The technique is so successful that NASA plans to use the same method for the Juno spacecraft, which is en route to Jupiter for a 2016 arrival.

Juno will repeatedly dive between the planet and its intense belts of charged particle radiation, coming only 5,000 kilometers (about 3,000 miles) from the cloud tops at closest approach. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Juno will repeatedly dive between the planet and its intense belts of charged particle radiation, coming only 5,000 kilometers (about 3,000 miles) from the cloud tops at closest approach. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Scientists are excited about Cassini’s mission right now because it is allowing them to observe the planet and its moons as it reaches the summer solstice of its 29-year orbit.

This could, for example, provide information on how the climate of the moon Titan changes — particularly with regard to its atmosphere and ethane/methane-riddled seas, both believed to be huge influencers for the moon’s temperature.

Beyond the practical applications, the improved measurements of Saturn and Cassini’s position are also giving scientists more insight into Albert Einstein’s theory of general relatively, JPL stated. They are taking the same techniques and applying them to observing quasars — black-hole powered galaxies — when Saturn passes in front of them from the viewpoint of Earth.

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Twin NASA Probes Find “Zebra Stripes” in Earth’s Radiation Belt

Earth’s inner radiation belt displays a curiously zebra-esque striped pattern, according to the latest findings from NASA’s twin Van Allen Probes. What’s more, the cause of the striping seems to be the rotation of the Earth itself — something that was previously thought to be impossible.

“…it is truly humbling, as a theoretician, to see how quickly new data can change our understanding of physical properties.”

– Aleksandr Ukhorskiy, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

Our planet is surrounded by two large doughnut-shaped regions of radiation called the Van Allen belts, after astrophysicist James Van Allen who discovered their presence in 1958. (Van Allen died at the age of 91 in 2006.) The inner Van Allen belt, extending from about 800 to 13,000 km (500 to 8,000 miles) above the Earth, contains high-energy electrons and protons and poses a risk to both spacecraft and humans, should either happen to spend any substantial amount of time inside it.

Read more: Surprising Third Radiation Belt Found Around Earth

The Radiation Belt Storm Probes Ion Composition Experiment (RBSPICE) is a time-of-flight versus energy spectrometer (JHUAPL)
The Radiation Belt Storm Probes Ion Composition Experiment (RBSPICE) is a time-of-flight versus energy spectrometer (JHUAPL)

Launched aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral AFS on the morning of Aug. 30, 2012, the Van Allen Probes (originally the Radiation Belt Storm Probes) are on a two-year mission to investigate the belts and find out how they behave and evolve over time.

One of the instruments aboard the twin probes, the Radiation Belt Storm Probes Ion Composition Experiment (RBSPICE), has detected a persistent striped pattern in the particles within the inner belt. While it was once thought that any structures within the belts were the result of solar activity, thanks to RBSPICE it’s now been determined that Earth’s rotation and tilted magnetic axis are the cause.

“It is because of the unprecedented high energy and temporal resolution of our energetic particle experiment, RBSPICE, that we now understand that the inner belt electrons are, in fact, always organized in zebra patterns,” said Aleksandr Ukhorskiy of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md., co-investigator on RBSPICE and lead author of the paper. “Furthermore, our modeling clearly identifies Earth’s rotation as the mechanism creating these patterns. It is truly humbling, as a theoretician, to see how quickly new data can change our understanding of physical properties.”

The model of the formation of the striped patterns is likened to the pulling of taffy.

RBSPICE data of stripes within the inner Van Allen belt (Click for animation) Credit: A. Ukhorskiy/JHUAPL
RBSPICE data of stripes within the inner Van Allen belt (Click for animation) Credit: A. Ukhorskiy/JHUAPL

“If the inner belt electron populations are viewed as a viscous fluid,” Ukhorskiy said, “these global oscillations slowly stretch and fold that fluid, much like taffy is stretched and folded in a candy store machine.”

“This finding tells us something new and important about how the universe operates,” said Barry Mauk, a project scientist at APL and co-author of the paper. “The new results reveal a new large-scale physical mechanism that can be important for planetary radiation belts throughout the solar system. An instrument similar to RBSPICE is now on its way to Jupiter on NASA’s Juno mission, and we will be looking for the existence of zebra stripe-like patterns in Jupiter’s radiation belts.”

Jupiter’s Van Allen belts are similar to Earth’s except much larger; Jupiter’s magnetic field is ten times stronger than Earth’s and the radiation in its belts is a million times more powerful (source). Juno will arrive at Jupiter in July 2016 and spend about a year in orbit, investigating its atmosphere, interior, and magnetosphere.

Thanks to the Van Allen Probes. Juno now has one more feature to look for in Jupiter’s radiation belts.

“It is amazing how Earth’s space environment, including the radiation belts, continue to surprise us even after we have studied them for over 50 years. Our understanding of the complex structures of the belts, and the processes behind the belts’ behaviors, continues to grow, all of which contribute to the eventual goal of providing accurate space weather modeling.”

– Louis Lanzerotti, physics professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and principal investigator for RBSPICE

The team’s findings have been published in the March 20 issue of the journal Nature.

The Van Allen Probes are the second mission in NASA’s Living With a Star program, managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD. The program explores aspects of the connected sun-Earth system that directly affect life and society.

Source: Van Allen Probes news release

Jupiter Bound Juno snaps Dazzling Gallery of Planet Earth Portraits

Juno Portrait of Earth
This false color composite shows more than half of Earth’s disk over the coast of Argentina and the South Atlantic Ocean as the Juno probe slingshotted by on Oct. 9, 2013 for a gravity assisted acceleration to Jupiter. The mosaic was assembled from raw images taken by the Junocam imager. Credit: NASA/JPL/SwRI/MSSS/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo
See below a gallery of Earth from Juno[/caption]

During a crucial speed boosting slingshot maneuver around Earth on Oct. 9, NASA’s Jupiter-bound Juno probe snapped a dazzling gallery of portraits of our Home Planet over the South American coastline and the Atlantic Ocean. See our mosaics of land, sea and swirling clouds above and below, including several shown in false color.

But an unexpected glitch during the do or die swing-by sent the spacecraft into ‘safe mode’ and delayed the transmission of most of the raw imagery and other science observations while mission controllers worked hastily to analyze the problem and successfully restore Juno to full operation on Oct. 12 – but only temporarily!

Because less than 48 hours later, Juno tripped back into safe mode for a second time. Five days later engineers finally recouped Juno and it’s been smooth sailing ever since, the top scientist told Universe Today.

“Juno is now fully operational and on its way to Jupiter,” Juno principal investigator Scott Bolton told me today. Bolton is from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), San Antonio, Texas.

“We are completely out of safe mode!”

NASA's Juno probe captured the image data for this composite picture during its Earth flyby on Oct. 9 over Argentina,  South America and the southern Atlantic Ocean. Raw imagery was reconstructed and aligned by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo, and false-color blue has been added to the view taken by a near-infrared filter that is typically used to detect methane. Credit: NASA/JPL/SwRI/MSSS/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo
NASA’s Juno probe captured the image data for this composite picture during its Earth flyby on Oct. 9 over Argentina, South America and the southern Atlantic Ocean. Raw imagery was reconstructed and aligned by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo, and false-color blue has been added to the view taken by a near-infrared filter that is typically used to detect methane. Credit: NASA/JPL/SwRI/MSSS/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

With the $1.1 Billion Juno probe completely healthy once again and the nail-biting drama past at last, engineers found the time to send the stored photos and research data back to ground station receivers.

“The science team is busy analyzing data from the Earth flyby,” Bolton informed me.

The amateur image processing team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo has stitched together several portraits from raw images captured as Juno sped over Argentina, South America and the South Atlantic Ocean and within 347 miles (560 kilometers) of the surface. We’ve collected the gallery here for all to enjoy.

Several portraits showing the swirling clouds and land masses of the Earth’s globe have already been kindly featured this week by Alan Boyle at NBC News and at the Daily Mail online.

NASA's Juno probe captured the image data for this composite picture during its Earth flyby on Oct. 9 over Argentina,  South America and the southern Atlantic Ocean. Raw imagery was stitched by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo in this view taken by a near-infrared filter that is typically used to detect methane. Credit: NASA/JPL/SwRI/MSSS/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo
NASA’s Juno probe captured the image data for this composite picture during its Earth flyby on Oct. 9 over Argentina, South America and the southern Atlantic Ocean. Raw imagery was stitched by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo in this view taken by a near-infrared filter that is typically used to detect methane. Credit: NASA/JPL/SwRI/MSSS/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

Raw images from the Junocam camera are collected in strips – like a push broom. So they have to be carefully reconstructed and realigned to match up. But it can’t be perfect because the spacecraft is constantly rotating and its speeding past Earth at over 78,000 mph.

So the perspective of Earth’s surface features seen by Junocam is changing during the imaging.

And that’s what is fascinating – to see the sequential view of Earth’s beautiful surface changing as the spacecraft flew over the coast of South America and the South Atlantic towards Africa – from the dayside to the nightside.

This composite shows more than half of Earth’s disk over the coast of Argentina and the South Atlantic Ocean as the Juno probe slingshotted by on Oct. 9, 2013 for a gravity assisted acceleration to Jupiter. The mosaic was assembled from raw images taken by the Junocam imager. Credit: NASA/JPL/SwRI/MSSS/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo
This composite shows more than half of Earth’s disk over the coast of Argentina and the South Atlantic Ocean as the Juno probe slingshotted by on Oct. 9, 2013 for a gravity assisted acceleration to Jupiter. The mosaic was assembled from raw images taken by the Junocam imager. Credit: NASA/JPL/SwRI/MSSS/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

It’s rare to get such views since only a few spacecraft have swung by Earth in this manner – for example Galileo and MESSENGER – on their way to distant destinations.

Coincidentally this week, the Cygnus cargo carrier departed the ISS over South America.

Fortunately, the Juno team knew right from the start that the flyby of Earth did accomplish its primary goal of precisely targeting Juno towards Jupiter – to within 2 kilometers of the aim point, despite going into safe mode.

“We are on our way to Jupiter as planned,” Juno Project manager Rick Nybakken, told me in a phone interview soon after the flyby of Earth. Nybakken is from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, CA.

“None of this affected our trajectory or the gravity assist maneuver – which is what the Earth flyby is,” he said.

Juno swoops over Argentina  This reconstructed day side image of Earth is one of the 1st snapshots transmitted back home by NASA’s Jupiter-bound Juno spacecraft during its speed boosting flyby on Oct. 9, 2013. It was taken by the probes Junocam imager and methane filter at 12:06:30 PDT and an exposure time of 3.2 milliseconds. Juno was flying over South America and the southern Atlantic Ocean. The coastline of Argentina is visible at top right. Credit: NASA/JPL/SwRI/MSSS/Ken Kremer
Juno swoops over Argentina
This reconstructed day side image of Earth is one of the 1st snapshots transmitted back home by NASA’s Jupiter-bound Juno spacecraft during its speed boosting flyby on Oct. 9, 2013. It was taken by the probes Junocam imager and methane filter at 12:06:30 PDT and an exposure time of 3.2 milliseconds. Juno was flying over South America and the southern Atlantic Ocean. The coastline of Argentina is visible at top right. Credit: NASA/JPL/SwRI/MSSS/Ken Kremer

It also accelerated the ships velocity by 16,330 mph (26,280 km/h) – thereby enabling Juno to be captured into polar orbit about Jupiter on July 4, 2016.

Dayside view of a sliver of Earth snapped by Juno during flyby on Oct. 9, 2013.  This mosaic has stitched from raw image data captured by methane near-infrared filter on Junocam imager at 11:57:30 PDT.  Credit: NASA/JPL/SwRI/MSSS/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo
Dayside view of a sliver of Earth snapped by Juno during flyby on Oct. 9, 2013. This mosaic is stitched from raw image data captured by methane near-infrared filter on Junocam imager at 11:57:30 PDT. Credit: NASA/JPL/SwRI/MSSS/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

The safe mode did not impact the spacecraft’s trajectory one smidgeon!

It was likely initiated by an incorrect setting for a fault protection trigger for the spacecraft’s battery when Juno was briefly in an eclipse during the flyby.

Nybakken also said that the probe was “power positive and we have full command ability,” while it was in safe mode.

Safe mode is a designated fault protective state that is preprogrammed into spacecraft software in case something goes amiss. It also aims the craft sunwards thereby enabling the solar arrays to keep the vehicle powered.

False-color composite of a sliver of Earth snapped by Juno during flyby on Oct. 9, 2013.  This mosaic is stitched from raw image data captured by methane near-infrared filter on Junocam imager at 11:57:30 PDT.  Credit: NASA/JPL/SwRI/MSSS/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo
False-color composite of a sliver of Earth snapped by Juno during flyby on Oct. 9, 2013. This mosaic is stitched from raw image data captured by methane near-infrared filter on Junocam imager at 11:57:30 PDT. Credit: NASA/JPL/SwRI/MSSS/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

The Earth flyby maneuver was necessary because the initial Atlas V rocket launch on Aug. 5, 2011 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL was not powerful enough to place Juno on a direct trajectory flight to Jupiter.

As of today, Juno is more than was 6.7 million miles (10.8 million kilometers) from Earth and 739 million miles (7.95 astronomical units) from Jupiter. It has traveled 1.01 billion miles (1.63 billion kilometers, or 10.9 AU) since launch.

With Juno now on course for our solar system’s largest planet, there won’t be no any new planetary images taken until it arrives at the Jovian system in 2016. Juno will then capture the first ever images of Jupiter’s north and south poles.

We have never seen Jupiter’s poles imaged from the prior space missions, and it’s not possible from Earth.

During a year long mission at Jupiter, Juno will use its nine science instruments to probe deep inside the planet to reveal its origin and evolution.

“Jupiter is the Rosetta Stone of our solar system,” says Bolton. “It is by far the oldest planet, contains more material than all the other planets, asteroids and comets combined and carries deep inside it the story of not only the solar system but of us. Juno is going there as our emissary — to interpret what Jupiter has to say.”

Based on what we’ve seen so far, Junocam is sure to provide spectacular views of the gas giants poles and cloud tops.

Only 982 days to go !

Ken Kremer

Credit: NASA/JPL
Credit: NASA/JPL