Back in Ye Olden Times, the job of astronomer was a pretty exclusive club. Either you needed to be so rich and so bored that you could design, build, and operate your own private observatory, or you needed to have a rich and bored friend who could finance your cosmic curiosity for you. By contrast, today’s modern observatories are much more democratic, offering of a wealth of juicy scientific info for researchers across the globe. But that ease of access comes with its own price: you don’t get the instrument all to yourself, and that’s a challenge for young scientists and their research.
When Elon Musk of SpaceX tweets something interesting, it generates a wave of excitement. So when he tweeted recently that SpaceX might be working on a way to retrieve upper stages of their rockets, it set off a chain of intrigued responses.
SpaceX will try to bring rocket upper stage back from orbital velocity using a giant party balloon
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 15, 2018
SpaceX has been retrieving and reusing their lower stages for some time now, and it’s lowered the cost of launching payloads into space. But this is the first hint that they may try to do the same with upper stages.
Twitter responders wanted to know exactly what SpaceX has in mind, and what a “giant party balloon” might be. Musk hasn’t elaborated yet, but one of his Twitter followers had something interesting to add.
Quinn Kupec, a student at the University of Maryland’s James Clark School of Engineering tweeted to Musk:
If you're proposing what I think you are, an ultra low ballistic entry coefficient decelerator, then you and @SpaceX should come see what we have at the @UofMaryland . We've been working on this for awhile and just finished some testing pic.twitter.com/nJBvyUnzaK
— Quinn Kupec (@QuinnKupec) April 16, 2018
Universe Today contacted Mr. Kupec to see if he could help us understand what Musk may have been getting at. But first, a little background.
An “ultra low ballistic entry coefficient decelerator” is a bit of a mouthful. The ballistic coefficient measures how well a vehicle can overcome air resistance in flight. A high ballistic coefficient means a re-entry vehicle would not lose velocity quickly, and would reach Earth at high speeds. An ultra low ballistic entry coefficient decelerator would lose speed quickly, meaning that a vehicle would be travelling at low, subsonic speeds before reaching the ground.
To recover an upper stage booster, low speeds are desirable, since they generate less heat. But according to Kupec, there’s another problem that must be overcome.
“What happens when these things slow down to landing velocities? If your center of gravity is offset significantly behind your center of drag, as would be the case with a returning upper stage, it can get unstable. If the center of gravity of the re-entry vehicle is too high, it can become inverted, which is obviously not desirable.”
So the trick is to lower the speed of the re-entry vehicle to the point where the heat generated by reentry isn’t damaging the booster, and to do it without causing the vehicle to invert or otherwise become unstable. This isn’t a problem for the main stage boosters that SpaceX now routinely recovers; they have their own retro-rockets to guide their descent and landing. But for the upper stage boosters, which reach orbital velocities, it’s an obstacle that has to be overcome.
“My research is specifically focused on how high you can push the center of gravity and still maintain the proper flight configuration,” said Kupec.
But what about the “giant party balloon” that Musk tweeted about?
Musk could be referring, in colorful terms, to what’s called a ballute. The word is a combination of the words balloon and parachute. They were invented in the 1950’s by Goodyear Aerospace. They can arrest the descent of entry vehicles and provide stability during the descent.
“…the balloon would have to be 120 ft. in diameter, and made of a high-temperature fabric…” – Professor Dave Akin, University of Maryland
Universe Today contacted Professor Dave Akin of the University of Maryland for some insight into Musk’s tweet. Professor Akin has been working on reentry systems for over 2 decades.
In an e-mail exchange, Professor Akin told us, “There have been concepts proposed for deploying a large balloon on a cable that is towed behind you on entry. The balloon lowers your ballistic coefficient, which means you decelerate higher in the atmosphere and the heat load is less.” So the key is to scrub your speed before you get closer to Earth, where the atmosphere is thicker and generates more heat.
But according to Professor Akin, this won’t necessarily be easy to do. “To get the two orders of magnitude reduction in ballistic coefficient that Elon has been talking about the balloon would have to be 120 ft. in diameter, and made of a high-temperature fabric, so it’s not going to be all that easy.”
But Musk’s track record shows he doesn’t shy away from things that aren’t easy.
Retrieving upper rocket stages isn’t all about lowering launch costs, it’s also about space junk. The European Space Agency estimates that there are over 29,000 pieces of space junk orbiting Earth, and some of that junk is spent upper stage boosters. There have been some collisions and accidents already, with some satellites being pushed into different orbits. In 2009, the Iridium 33 communications satellite and the defunct Russian Cosmos 2251 communications satellite collided with each other, destroying both. If SpaceX can develop a way to retrieve its upper stage boosters, that means less space junk, and fewer potential collisions.
There’s a clear precedent for using balloons to manage reentry. With people like Professor Akin and Quinn Kupec working on it, SpaceX won’t have to reinvent the wheel. But they’ll still have a lot of work to do.
Musk tweeted one other thing shortly after his “giant party balloon” tweet:
And then land on a bouncy house
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 16, 2018
No word yet on what that might mean.
Elon Musk’s “giant party balloon” tweet: https://twitter.com/elonmusk/status/985655249745592320
Quinn Kupec’s tweet: https://twitter.com/QuinnKupec/status/985736260827471872
The microgravity in space causes a number of problems for astronauts, including bone density loss and muscle atrophy. But there’s another problem: weightlessness allows astronauts’ spines to expand, making them taller. The height gain is permanent while they’re in space, and causes back pain.
A new SkinSuit being tested in a study at King’s College in London may bring some relief. The study has not been published yet.
The constant 24 hour microgravity that astronauts live with in space is different from the natural 24 hour cycle that humans go through on Earth. Down here, the spine goes through a natural cycle associated with sleep.
Sleeping in a supine position allows the discs in the spine to expand with fluid. When we wake up in the morning, we’re at our tallest. As we go about our day, gravity compresses the spinal discs and we lose about 1.5 cm (0.6 inches) in height. Then we sleep again, and the spine expands again. But in space, astronauts spines have been known to grow up to 7 cm. (2.75 in.)
Study leader David A. Green explains it: “On Earth your spine is compressed by gravity as you’re on your feet, then you go to bed at night and your spine unloads – it’s a normal cyclic process.”
In microgravity, the spine of an astronaut is never compressed by gravity, and stays unloaded. The resulting expansion causes pain. As Green says, “In space there’s no gravitational loading. Thus the discs in your spine may continue to swell, the natural curves of the spine may be reduced and the supporting ligaments and muscles — no longer required to resist gravity – may become loose and weak.”
The SkinSuit being developed by the Space Medicine Office of ESA’s European Astronaut Centre and the King’s College in London is based on work done by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It’s a spandex-based garment that simulates gravity by squeezing the body from the shoulders to the feet.
The Skinsuits were tested on-board the International Space Station by ESA astronauts Andreas Mogensen and Thomas Pesquet. But they could only be worn for a short period of time. “The first concepts were really uncomfortable, providing some 80% equivalent gravity loading, and so could only be worn for a couple of hours,” said researcher Philip Carvil.
Back on Earth, the researchers worked on the suit to improve it. They used a waterbed half-filled with water rich in magnesium salts. This re-created the microgravity that astronauts face in space. The researchers were inspired by the Dead Sea, where the high salt content allows swimmers to float on the surface.
“During our longer trials we’ve seen similar increases in stature to those experienced in orbit, which suggests it is a valid representation of microgravity in terms of the effects on the spine,” explains researcher Philip Carvil.
Studies using students as test subjects have helped with the development of the SkinSuit. After lying on the microgravity-simulating waterbed both with and without the SkinSuit, subjects were scanned with MRI’s to test the SkinSuit’s effectiveness. The suit has gone through several design revisions to make it more comfortable, wearable, and effective. It’s now up to the Mark VI design.
“The Mark VI Skinsuit is extremely comfortable, to the point where it can be worn unobtrusively for long periods of normal activity or while sleeping,” say Carvil. “The Mk VI provides around 20% loading – slightly more than lunar gravity, which is enough to bring back forces similar to those that the spine is used to having.”
“The results have yet to be published, but it does look like the Mk VI Skinsuit is effective in mitigating spine lengthening,” says Philip. “In addition we’re learning more about the fundamental physiological processes involved, and the importance of reloading the spine for everyone.”
ESA scientists have found one additional image from the Rosetta spacecraft hiding in the telemetry. This new image was found in the last bits of data sent by Rosetta immediately before it shut down on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko last year.
The new image shows a close-up shot of the rocky, pebbly surface of the comet, and looks somewhat reminiscent of the views the Huygens lander took of the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan.
Planetary astronomer Andy Rivkin noted on Twitter that for size context, he estimates the block just right of center looks to be about the size of a hat. That’s a fun comparison to have (not to mention thinking about hats on Comet 67P!)
The picture has a scale of 2 mm/pixel and measures about 1 m across. It’s a really ‘close’ close-up of Comet 67P.
“The last complete image transmitted from Rosetta was the final one that we saw arriving back on Earth in one piece moments before the touchdown at Sais,” said Holger Sierks, principal investigator for the OSIRIS camera at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Göttingen, Germany. “Later, we found a few telemetry packets on our server and thought, wow, that could be another image.”
The team explains that the image data were put into telemetry ‘packets’ aboard Rosetta before they were transmitted to Earth, and the final images were split into six packets. However, for the very last image, the transmission was interrupted after only three full packets. The incomplete data was not recognized as an image by the automatic processing software, but later, the engineers in Göttingen could make sense of these data fragments to reconstruct the image.
You’ll notice it is rather blurry. The OSIRIS camera team says this image only has about 53% of the full data and “therefore represents an image with an effective compression ratio of 1:38 compared to the anticipated compression ratio of 1:20, meaning some of the finer detail was lost.”
That is, it gets a lot blurrier as you zoom in compared with a full-quality image. They compared it to compressing an image to send via email, versus an uncompressed version that you would print out and hang on your wall.
Rosetta’s final resting spot is in a region of active pits in the Ma’at region on the two-lobed, duck-shaped comet.
Launched in 2004, Rosetta traveled nearly 8 billion kilometers and its journey included three Earth flybys and one at Mars, and two asteroid encounters. It arrived at the comet in August 2014 after being in hibernation for 31 months.
After becoming the first spacecraft to orbit a comet, it deployed the Philae lander in November 2014. Philae sent back data for a few days before succumbing to a power loss after it unfortunately landed in a crevice and its solar panels couldn’t receive sunlight.
But Rosetta showed us unprecedented views of Comet 67P and monitored the comet’s evolution as it made its closest approach and then moved away from the Sun. However, Rosetta and the comet moved too far away from the Sun for the spacecraft to receive enough power to continue operations, so the mission plan was to set the spacecraft down on the comet’s surface.
And scientists have continued to sift through the data, and this new image was found. Who knows what else they’ll find, hiding the data?
The more that planetary astronomers study asteroids, they more they’re realizing just how varied and different they can be. Some, like 16 Psyche are made of solid nickel and iron, while others are made of rock. Some asteroids have been found with moons, rings, and some icy objects really blur the line between comet and asteroid. In order to truly understand their nature, it would take dozens or maybe hundreds of individual missions on the scale of Rosetta or New Horizons.
Or maybe not.
A team of researchers with the Finnish Meteorological Institute announced today that the best way to explore the varied objects in the asteroid belt would be with a fleet of tiny nanosatellites – 50 ought to do the trick to explore 300 separate asteroids, bringing the individual costs down to a few hundred thousand dollars per asteroid. During a presentation they made at the European Planetary Science Congress (EPSC) 2017 in Riga on Tuesday, the researchers showed how these tiny satellites could travel out to the asteroid belt, gather data on individual asteroids, and return to Earth to download their data.
The 50 satellites could be launched together in a single vehicle, and then separate once in space, or they could fill extra space in existing launches. The exact launch orbit doesn’t matter, as long as the spacecraft can get outside the Earth’s protective magnetosphere, where they can catch a ride on the solar wind.
Once in space, 5-kg spacecraft would deploy a 20 km-long wire tether that would catch the solar wind; the constantly flowing particles coming off the Sun, imparting a tiny thrust. This is known as an “E-sail” or electric sail. Unlike a solar sail, which depends on the momentum of photons coming from the Sun, electric sails harvest the momentum of charged protons.
Researchers are still figuring out if this is an effective propulsion system for spacecraft. An Estonian prototype satellite was launched back in 2015, but its onboard motor failed to reel out its tether. The Finnish Aalto-1 satellite launched in June, 2017, and will test out a prototype electric sail in addition to several other experiments over the course of the next year. Even more advanced versions have been proposed, such as Heliopause Electrostatic Rapid Transit System (or HERTS), a mission which could reach 100 astronomical units in 10-15 years by deploying a huge electrified net in space.
In the case of this asteroid mission, each satellite’s electric sail would only give it a change in velocity of only one millimeter per second, but over the course of a 3.2 year mission, it would allow the spacecraft to reach the asteroid belt and return to Earth.
In fact, the spacecraft would use their tethers to maneuver within the asteroid belt, flying past as many targets as they can with this minuscule thrust. Each satellite should be able to reach at least 6-7 numbers asteroids, and maybe even more smaller ones.
Each satellite would be equipped with a telescope with only a 40 mm aperture. That’s the size of a small spotting scope or half a pair of binoculars, but it would be enough to resolve features on the surface of an asteroid as large as 100 meters across from 1,000 km away. In addition to taking visual images of the asteroid targets, the spacecraft would be equipped with an infrared spectrometer to determine its meteorology.
Because the spacecraft are so small, they won’t be capable of carrying a transmitter to send their data back to Earth. Instead, they’d store all their scientific findings on a memory card, and then dump their data when their orbit brings them back close to Earth.
The researchers estimate that development of the mission would probably cost about 60 million Euros, or $70 million dollars, bringing the cost per asteroid down to about 200,000 Euros or $240,000.
During its long mission to Saturn, the Cassini spacecraft has given us image after spectacular image of Saturn, its rings, and Saturn’s moons. The images of Saturn’s moon Enceladus are of particular interest when it comes to the search for life.
At first glance, Enceladus appears similar to other icy moons in our Solar System. But Cassini has shown us that Enceladus could be a cradle for extra-terrestrial life.
Our search for life in the Solar System is centred on the presence of liquid water. Maybe we don’t know for sure if liquid H2O is required for life. But the Solar System is huge, and the effort required to explore it is immense. So starting our search for life with the search for liquid water is wise. And in the search for liquid water, Enceladus is a tantalizing target.
Though Enceladus looks every bit like a frozen, lifeless world on its surface, it’s what lies beneath its frigid crust that is exciting. Enceladus appears to have a subsurface ocean, at least in it’s south polar region. And that ocean may be up to 10 km. deep.
Before we dive into that, (sorry), here are a few basic facts about Enceladus:
- Enceladus is Saturn’s sixth largest moon
- Enceladus is about 500 km in diameter (Earth’s Moon is 3,474 km in diameter)
- Enceladus was discovered in 1789 by William Herschel
- Enceladus is one of the most reflective objects in our Solar System, due to its icy surface
In 2005, Cassini first spied plumes of frozen water vapor erupting from the southern polar region. Called cryovolcanoes, subsequent study of them determined that they are the likely source of Saturn’s E Ring. The existence of these plumes led scientists to suspect that their source was a sub-surface ocean under Enceladus’ ice crust.
Finding plumes of water erupting from a moon is one thing, but it’s not just water. It’s salt water. Further study showed that the plumes also contained simple organic compounds. This advanced the idea that Enceladus could harbor life.
The geysers aren’t the only evidence for a sub-surface ocean on Enceladus. The southern polar region has a smooth surface, unlike the rest of the moon which is marked with craters. Something must have smoothed that surface, since it is next to impossible that the south polar region would be free from impact craters.
In 2005, Cassini detected a warm region in the south, much warmer than could be caused by solar radiation. The only conclusion is that Enceladus has a source of internal heating. That internal heat would create enough geologic activity to erase impact craters.
So now, two conditions for the existence of life have been met: liquid water, and heat.
The source of the heat on Enceladus was the next question facing scientists. That question is far from settled, and there could be several sources of heat operating together. Among all the possible sources for the heat, two are most intriguing when it comes to the search for life: tidal heating, and radioactive heating.
Tidal heating is a result of rotational and orbital forces. In Enceladus’ case, these forces cause friction which is dissipated as heat. This heat keeps the sub-surface ocean in liquid form, but doesn’t prevent the surface from freezing solid.
Radioactive heating is caused by the decay of radioactive isotopes. If Enceladus started out as a rocky body, and if it contained enough short-lived isotopes, then an enormous amount of heat would be produced for several million years. That action would create a rocky core surrounded by ice.
Then, if enough long-lived radioactive isotopes were present, they would continue producing heat for a much longer period of time. However, radioactive heating isn’t enough on its own. There would have to be tidal heating also.
More evidence for a large, sub-surface ocean came in 2014. Cassini and the Deep Space Network provided gravitometric measurements showing that the ocean is there. Those measurements showed that there is likely a regional, if not global, ocean some 10 km thick. Measurements also showed that the ocean is under an ice layer 30 to 40 km thick.
The discovery of a warm, salty ocean containing organic molecules is very intriguing, and has expanded our idea of what the habitable zone might be in our Solar System, and in others. Enceladus is much too distant from the Sun to rely on solar energy to sustain life. If moons can provide their own heat through tidal heating or radioactive heating, then the habitable zone in any solar system wouldn’t be determined by proximity to the star or stars at the centre.
Cassini’s mission is nearing its end, and it won’t fly by Enceladus again. It’s told us all it can about Enceladus. It’s up to future missions to expand our understanding of Enceladus.
Numerous missions have been talked about, including two that suggest flying through the plumes and sampling them. One proposal has a sample of the plumes being returned to Earth for study. Landing on Enceladus and somehow drilling through the ice remains a far-off idea better left to science fiction, at least for now.
Whether or not Enceladus can or does harbor life is a question that won’t be answered for a long time. In fact, not all scientists agree that there is a liquid ocean there at all. But whether it does or doesn’t harbor life, Cassini has allowed us to enjoy the tantalizing beauty of that distant object.
The incredible HiRISE camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter turned its eyes away from its usual target – Mars’ surface – and for calibration purposes only, took some amazing images of Earth and our Moon. Combined to create one image, this is a marvelous view of our home from about 127 million miles (205 million kilometers) away.
Alfred McEwen, principal investigator for HiRISE said the image is constructed from the best photo of Earth and the best photo of the Moon from four sets of images. Interestingly, this combined view retains the correct positions and sizes of the two bodies relative to each other. However, Earth and the Moon appear closer than they actually are in this image because the observation was planned for a time at which the Moon was almost directly behind Earth, from Mars’ point of view, to see the Earth-facing side of the Moon.
“Each is separately processed prior to combining (in correct relative positions and sizes), so that the Moon is bright enough to see,” McEwen wrote on the HiRISE website. “The Moon is much darker than Earth and would barely show up at all if shown at the same brightness scale as Earth. Because of this brightness difference, the Earth images are saturated in the best Moon images, and the Moon is very faint in the best (unsaturated) Earth image.”
Earth looks reddish because the HiRISE imaging team used color filters similar to the Landsat images where vegetation appears red.
“The image color bandpasses are infrared, red, and blue-green, displayed as red, green, and blue, respectively,” McEwen explained. “The reddish blob in the middle of the Earth image is Australia, with southeast Asia forming the reddish area (vegetation) near the top; Antarctica is the bright blob at bottom-left. Other bright areas are clouds. We see the western near-side of the Moon.”
HiRISE took these pictures on Nov. 20, 2016, and this is not the first time HiRISE has turned its eyes towards Earth.
Back in 2007, HiRISE took this image, below, from Mars’ orbit when it was just 88 million miles (142 million km) from Earth. This one is more like how future astronauts might see Earth and the Moon through a telescope from Mars’ orbit.
If you look closely, you can make out a few features on our planet. The west coast outline of South America is at lower right on Earth, although the clouds are the dominant features. In fact, the clouds were so bright, compared with the Moon, that they almost completely saturated the filters on the HiRISE camera. The people working on HiRISE say this image required a fair amount of processing to make such a nice-looking picture.
You can see an image from a previous Mars’ orbiter, the Mars Global Surveyor, that took a picture of Earth, the Moon and Jupiter — all in one shot — back in 2003 here.
Following is an excerpt from my new book, “Incredible Stories From Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos,” which will be released tomorrow, Dec. 20, 2016. The book is an inside look at several current NASA robotic missions, and this excerpt is part 1 of 3 which will be posted here on Universe Today, of Chapter 2, “Roving Mars with Curiosity.” The book is available for order on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Seven Minutes of Terror
It takes approximately seven minutes for a moderate-sized spacecraft – such as a rover or a robotic lander — to descend through the atmosphere of Mars and reach the planet’s surface. During those short minutes, the spacecraft has to decelerate from its blazing incoming speed of about 13,000 mph (20,900 kph) to touch down at just 2 mph (3 kph) or less.
This requires a Rube Goldberg-like series of events to take place in perfect sequence, with precise choreography and timing. And it all needs to happen automatically via computer, with no input from anyone on Earth. There is no way to guide the spacecraft remotely from our planet, about 150 million miles (250 million km) away. At that distance, the radio signal delay time from Earth to Mars takes over 13 minutes. Therefore, by the time the seven-minute descent is finished, all those events have happened – or not happened – and no one on Earth knows which. Either your spacecraft sits magnificently on the surface of Mars or lies in a crashed heap.
That’s why scientists and engineers from the missions to Mars call it “Seven Minutes of Terror.”
And with the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission, which launched from Earth in November of 2011, the fear and trepidation about what is officially called the ‘Entry, Descent and Landing’ (EDL) increased exponentially. MSL features a 1-ton (900 kg), 6-wheeled rover named Curiosity, and this rover was going to use a brand new, untried landing system.
To date, all Mars landers and rovers have used — in order — a rocket-guided entry, a heat shield to protect and slow the vehicle, then a parachute, followed by thrusters to slow the vehicle even more. Curiosity would use this sequence as well. However, a final, crucial component encompassed one of the most complex landing devices ever flown.
Dubbed the “Sky Crane,” a hovering rocket stage would lower the rover on 66 ft. (20 meter) cables of Vectran rope like a rappelling mountaineer, with the rover soft-landing directly on its wheels. This all needed to be completed in a matter of seconds, and when the on-board computer sensed touchdown, pyrotechnics would sever the ropes, and the hovering descent stage would zoom away at full throttle to crash-land far from Curiosity.
Complicating matters even further, this rover was going to attempt the most precise off-world landing ever, setting down inside a crater next to a mountain the height of Mount Rainier.
A major part of the uncertainty was that engineers could never test the entire landing system all together, in sequence. And nothing could simulate the brutal atmospheric conditions and lighter gravity present on Mars except being on Mars itself. Since the real landing would be the first time the full-up Sky Crane would be used, there were questions: What if the cables didn’t separate? What if the descent stage kept descending right on top of the rover?
If the Sky Crane didn’t work, it would be game-over for a mission that had already overcome so much: technical problems, delays, cost overruns, and the wrath of critics who said this $2.5 billion Mars rover was bleeding money away from the rest of NASA’s planetary exploration program.
Missions to Mars
With its red glow in the nighttime sky, Mars has beckoned skywatchers for centuries. As the closest planet to Earth that offers any potential for future human missions or colonization, it has been of great interest in the age of space exploration. To date, over 40 robotic missions have been launched to the Red Planet … or more precisely, 40-plus missions have been attempted.
Including all US, European, Soviet/Russian and Japanese efforts, more than half of Mars missions have failed, either because of a launch disaster, a malfunction en route to Mars, a botched attempt to slip into orbit, or a catastrophic landing. While recent missions have had greater success than our first pioneering attempts to explore Mars in situ (on location) space scientists and engineers are only partially kidding when they talk about things like a ‘Great Galactic Ghoul’ or the ‘Mars Curse’ messing up the missions.
But there have been wonderful successes, too. Early missions in the 1960’s and 70’s such as Mariner orbiters and Viking landers showed us a strikingly beautiful, although barren and rocky world, thereby dashing any hopes of ‘little green men’ as our planetary neighbors. But later missions revealed a dichotomy: magnificent desolation combined with tantalizing hints of past — or perhaps even present day – water and global activity.
Today, Mars’ surface is cold and dry, and its whisper-thin atmosphere doesn’t shield the planet from bombardment of radiation from the Sun. But indications are the conditions on Mars weren’t always this way. Visible from orbit are channels and intricate valley systems that appear to have been carved by flowing water.
For decades, planetary scientists have debated whether these features formed during brief, wet periods caused by cataclysmic events such as a massive asteroid strike or sudden climate calamity, or if they formed over millions of years when Mars may have been continuously warm and wet. Much of the evidence so far is ambiguous; these features could have formed either way. But billions of years ago, if there were rivers and oceans, just like on Earth, life might have taken hold.
The Curiosity rover is the fourth mobile spacecraft NASA has sent to Mars’ surface. The first was a 23-pound (10.6 kg) rover named Sojourner that landed on a rock-covered Martian plain on July 4, 1997. About the size of a microwave oven, the 2-foot- (65 cm) long Sojourner never traversed more than 40 feet away from its lander and base station. The rover and lander together constituted the Pathfinder mission, which was expected to last about a week. Instead, it lasted nearly three months and the duo returned 2.6 gigabits of data, snapping more than 16,500 images from the lander and 550 images from the rover, as well as taking chemical measurements of rocks and soil and studying Mars’ atmosphere and weather. It identified traces of a warmer, wetter past for Mars.
The mission took place when the Internet was just gaining popularity, and NASA decided to post pictures from the rover online as soon as they were beamed to Earth. This ended up being one of the biggest events in the young Internet’s history, with NASA’s website (and mirror sites set up for the high demand) receiving over 430 million hits in the first 20 days after landing.
Pathfinder, too, utilized an unusual landing system. Instead of using thrusters to touch down on the surface, engineers concocted a system of giant airbags to surround and protect the spacecraft. After using the conventional system of a rocket-guided entry, heat shield, parachutes and thrusters, the airbags inflated and the cocooned lander was dropped from 100 feet (30 m) above the ground. Bouncing several times across Mars’ surface times like a giant beach ball, Pathfinder eventually came to a stop, the airbags deflated and the lander opened up to allow the rover to emerge.
While that may sound like a crazy landing strategy, it worked so well that NASA decided to use larger versions of the airbags for the next rover mission: two identical rovers named Spirit and Opportunity. The Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) are about the size of a riding lawn mower, at 5.2 feet (1.6 meters) long, weighing about 400 lbs (185 kilograms). Spirit landed successfully near Mars’ equator on January 4, 2004, and three weeks later Opportunity bounced down on the other side of the planet. The goal of MER was to find evidence of past water on Mars, and both rovers hit the jackpot. Among many findings, Opportunity found ancient rock outcrops that were formed in flowing water and Spirit found unusual cauliflower-shaped silica rocks that scientists are still studying, but they may provide clues to potential ancient Martian life.
Incredibly, at this writing (2016) the Opportunity rover is still operating, driving more than a marathon (26 miles/42 km) and it continues to explore Mars at a large crater named Endeavour. Spirit, however, succumbed to a loss of power during the cold Martian winter in 2010 after getting stuck in a sandtrap. The two rovers far outlived their projected 90-day lifetime.
Somehow, the rovers each developed a distinct ‘personality’ – or, perhaps a better way to phrase it is that people assigned personalities to the robots. Spirit was a problem child and drama queen but had to struggle for every discovery; Opportunity, a privileged younger sister, and star performer, as new findings seemed to come easy for her. Spirit and Opportunity weren’t designed to be adorable, but the charming rovers captured the imaginations of children and seasoned space veterans alike. MER project manager John Callas once called the twin rovers “the cutest darn things out in the Solar System.” As the long-lived, plucky rovers overcame hazards and perils, they sent postcards from Mars every day. And Earthlings loved them for it.
While it’s long been on our space to-do list, we haven’t quite yet figured out how to send humans to Mars. We need bigger and more advanced rockets and spacecraft, better technology for things like life support and growing our own food, and we really don’t have the ability to land the very large payloads needed to create a human settlement on Mars.
But in the meantime – while we try to figure all that out — we have sent the robotic equivalent of a human geologist to the Red Planet. The car-sized Curiosity rover is armed with an array of seventeen cameras, a drill, a scoop, a hand lens, and even a laser. These tools resemble equipment geologists use to study rocks and minerals on Earth. Additionally, this rover mimics human activity by mountain climbing, eating (figuratively speaking), flexing its (robotic) arm, and taking selfies.
This roving robotic geologist is also a mobile chemistry lab. A total of ten instruments on the rover help search for organic carbon that might indicate the raw material required by life, and “sniff” the Martian air, trying to smell if gasses like methane — which could be a sign of life — are present. Curiosity’s robotic arm carries a Swiss Army knife of gadgets: a magnifying lens-like camera, a spectrometer to measure chemical elements, and a drill to bore inside rocks and feed samples to the laboratories named SAM (Sample Analysis at Mars) and) and CheMin (Chemistry and Mineralogy). The ChemCam laser can vaporize rock from up to 23 feet (7 meters) away, and identify the minerals from the spectrum of light emitted from the blasted rock. A weather station and radiation monitor round out the devices on board.
With these cameras and instruments, the rover becomes the eyes and hands for an international team of about 500 earthbound scientists.
While the previous Mars rovers used solar arrays to gather sunlight for power, Curiosity uses an RTG like New Horizons. The electricity generated from the RTG repeatedly powers rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, and the RTG’s heat is also piped into the rover chassis to keep the interior electronics warm.
With Curiosity’s size and weight, the airbag landing system used by the previous rovers was out of the question. As NASA engineer Rob Manning explained, “You can’t bounce something that big.” The Sky Crane is an audacious solution.
Curiosity’s mission: figure out how Mars evolved over billions of years and determine if it once was — or even now is — capable of supporting microbial life.
Curiosity’s target for exploration: a 3.4 mile (5.5 km) -high Mars mountain scientists call Mt. Sharp (formally known as Aeolis Mons) that sits in the middle of Gale Crater, a 96-mile (155-km) diameter impact basin.
Gale was chosen from 60 candidate sites. Data from orbiting spacecraft determined the mountain has dozens of layers of sedimentary rock, perhaps built over millions of years. These layers could tell the story of Mars’ geologic and climate history. Additionally, both the mountain and the crater appear to have channels and other features that look like they were carved by flowing water.
The plan: MSL would land in a lower, flatter part of the crater and carefully work its way upward towards the mountain, studying each layer, essentially taking a tour of the epochs of Mars’ geologic history.
The hardest part would be getting there. And the MSL team only had one chance to get it right.
Curiosity’s landing on August 5, 2012 was one of the most anticipated space exploration events in recent history. Millions of people watched events unfold online and on TV, with social media feeds buzzing with updates. NASA TV’s feed from JPL’s mission control was broadcast live on the screens in New York’s Time Square and at venues around the world hosting ‘landing parties.’
But the epicenter of action was at JPL, where hundreds of engineers, scientists and NASA officials gathered at JPL’s Space Flight Operations Facility. The EDL team – all wearing matching light blue polo shirts — monitored computer consoles at mission control.
Two members of the team stood out: EDL team lead Adam Steltzner — who wears his hair in an Elvis-like pompadour — paced back and forth between the rows of consoles. Flight Director Bobak Ferdowski sported and an elaborate stars and stripes Mohawk. Obviously, in the twenty-first century, exotic hairdos have replaced the 1960’s black glasses and pocket protectors for NASA engineers.
At the time of the landing, Ashwin Vasavada was one of the longest serving scientists on the mission team, having joined MSL as the Deputy Project Scientist in 2004 when the rover was under construction. Back then, a big part of Vasavada’s job was working with the instrument teams to finalize the objectives of their instruments, and supervise technical teams to help develop the instruments and integrate them with the rover.
Each of the ten selected instruments brought a team of scientists, so with engineers, additional staff and students, there were hundreds of people getting the rover ready for launch. Vasavada helped coordinate every decision and modification that might affect the eventual science done on Mars. During the landing, however, all he could do was watch.
“I was in the room next door to the control room that was being shown on TV,” Vasavada said. “For the landing there was nothing I could do except realize the past eight years of my life and my entire future was all riding on that seven minutes of EDL.”
Plus, the fact that no would know the real fate of the rover until 13 minutes after the fact due to the radio delay time led to a feeling of helplessness for everyone at JPL.
“Although I was sitting in a chair,” Vasavada added, “I think I was mentally curled up in the fetal position.”
As Curiosity sped closer to Mars, three other veteran spacecraft already orbiting the planet moved into position to be able to keep an eye on the newcomer MSL as it transmitted information on its status. At first, MSL communicated directly to the Deep Space Network (DSN) antennas on Earth.
To make telemetry from the spacecraft as streamlined as possible during EDL, Curiosity sent out 128 simple but distinct tones indicating when steps in the landing process were activated. Allen Chen, an engineer in the control room announced each as they came: one sound indicated the spacecraft entered Mars’ atmosphere; another signaled the thrusters fired, guiding the spacecraft towards Gale Crater. Tentative clapping and smiles came from the team at Mission Control at the early tones, with emotions increasing as the spacecraft moved closer and closer to the surface.
Partway through the descent, MSL went below the Martian horizon, putting it out of communication with Earth. But the three orbiters — Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Express — were ready to capture, record and relay data to the DSN.
Seamlessly, the tones kept coming to Earth as each step of the landing continued flawlessly. The parachute deployed. The heat shield dropped away. A tone signaled the descent stage carrying the rover let go of the parachute, another indicated powered flight and descent toward the surface. Another tone meant the Sky Crane began lowering the rover to the surface.
A tone arrived, indicating Curiosity’s wheels touched the surface, but even that didn’t mean success. The team had to make sure the Sky Crane flyaway maneuver worked.
Then, came the tone they were waiting for: “Touchdown confirmed,” cheered Chen. “We’re safe on Mars!”
Pandemonium and joy erupted in JPL’s mission control, at the landing party sites, and on social media. It seemed the world celebrated together at that moment. Cost overruns, delays, all the negative things ever said about the MSL mission seemed to vanish with the triumph of landing.
“Welcome to Mars!” the Director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Charles Elachi said at a press conference following the dramatic touchdown, “Tonight we landed, tomorrow we start exploring Mars. Our Curiosity has no limits.”
“The seven minutes actually went really fast,” said Vasavada. “It was over before we knew it. Then everybody was jumping up and down, even though most of us were still processing that it went so successfully.”
That the landing went so well — indeed perfectly — may have actually shocked some of the team at JPL. While they had rehearsed Curiosity’s landing several times, remarkably, they were never able to land the vehicle in their simulations.
“We tried to rehearse it very accurately,” Vasavada said, “so that everything was in synch — both the telemetry that we had simulated that would be coming from the spacecraft, along with real-time animations that had been created. It was a pretty complex thing, but it never actually worked. So the real, actual landing was the first time everything worked right.”
Curiosity was programmed to immediately take pictures of its surroundings. Within two minutes of the landing, the first images were beamed to Earth and popped up on the viewing screens at JPL.
“We had timed the orbiters to fly over during the landing, but didn’t know for sure if their relay link would last long enough to get the initial pictures down,” Vasavada said. “Those first pictures were fairly ratty because the protective covers were still on the cameras and the thrusters had kicked up a lot of dust on the covers. We couldn’t really see it very well but we still jumped up and down nevertheless because these were pictures from Mars.”
Amazingly, one of the first pictures showed exactly what the rover had been sent to study.
“We had landed with the cameras basically facing directly at Mt. Sharp,” Vasavada said, shaking his head. “In the HazCam (hazard camera) image, right between the wheels, we had this gorgeous shot. There was the mountain. It was like a preview of the whole mission, right in front of us.”
Tomorrow: Part 2 of “Roving Mars With Curiosity,” with ‘Living on Mars Time’ and ‘Discoveries’
“Incredible Stories From Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos” is published by Page Street Publishing, a subsidiary of Macmillan.
The current divisiveness that seems to be permeating our culture has many wondering if we can ever overcome the divisions to find our common humanity, and be able to work together to solve our problems. I’ve said – only somewhat jokingly — that if there are any alien species out there, waiting to make first contact with the people of Earth in order to unify our planet, now would be a good time.
I saw a quote last week, where in remembering astronaut John Glenn, Bill Nye said “Space exploration brings out our best.”
I really believe that. Space exploration challenges us to not only to be and do our best, but reach beyond the ordinary, push the boundaries of our scientific and technical limits, and then to push even further. That “intangible desire to explore and challenge the boundaries of what we know and where we have been,” as NASA has phrased it, has provided benefits to our society for centuries. With space exploration, our desire to answer fundamental questions about our place in the Universe can not only help to expand technology, but it helps us look at things in new ways and it seems to help foster a sense of cooperation, and – if I may – peaceful and enduring connections with our fellow humans.
If we could only look for and encourage the best in each other, and simply spend time cooperating and working together, I think we’d be amazed at what we could accomplish.
The people involved in space exploration already do that.
I recently had the opportunity to meet with some of our best, brightest and boldest and witness the cooperation and respect that it takes for space missions to succeed. Over the past several months, I interviewed 37 NASA scientists and engineers from current robotic missions for a book I wrote, “Incredible Stories From Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos.” In all these stories these scientists and engineers shared with me, several things stood out.
Space exploration offers an incredible example of cooperation. Getting a mission off the ground and keeping it operational for as long as possible takes an amazing amount of cooperation. A delightful children’s book titled “Team Moon: How 400,000 People Landed Apollo 11 on the Moon” by Catherine Thimmesh shows how it took hundreds of thousands of people from not just the United States, but also from around the world to send the astronauts to the Moon. From rocket scientists to the seamstresses that sewed the spacesuits together, to the radio operators around the globe that monitored communications, each person, each step was an important link in the chain of what it took to make the Apollo 11 mission possible.
And while my book focuses on NASA missions (I really wish traveling abroad to include missions from other space agencies would have been in my budget!) almost all robotic missions these days are international ventures.
Helmut Jenkner, who is currently the Interim Head of the Hubble Space Telescope Mission, told me that the international nature of the Hubble mission has brought an inherent diversity to the project. The diverse approach to solving problems has helped Hubble be such a successful mission, and with Hubble in space for nearly 27 years, Jenkner said that diverse approach has helped the Hubble mission to endure.
In virtually all robotic missions, scientists from around the world work together and provide their expertise from building instruments to analyzing the data. Working across borders and languages can be difficult, but for the mission to succeed, cooperation is essential. Because of the common goal of mission success, differences from major to petty can be put aside.
On a robotic spacecraft, the many different components and instruments on board are built by different companies, sometimes in several different countries, but yet all the pieces have to fit together perfectly in order for a mission to succeed. Just putting together a mission concept takes an incredible amount of cooperation from both scientists and engineers, as they need to figure out the great compromise of what is possible versus what would be ideal.
I don’t mean to be completely Pollyanna here, as certainly, there are personality conflicts, and I know there are people involved in space missions who have to work side-by-side with someone they don’t really like or don’t agree with. There is also intense competition: the competition for missions to be chosen to get sent to space, the rivalry for who gets to lead and make important decisions, and disagreements on the best way to proceed in times of difficulty. But yet, these people work it out, doing what is necessary in order for the mission to succeed.
Space exploration brings out a sense of inclusiveness. Many of the Apollo astronauts have said that when they traveled to other countries following the missions, people around the world would say how proud they were that “we went to the Moon.” It wasn’t just the US, but “we humans” did it.
When the Curiosity rover landed, when Juno went into orbit around Jupiter, when the Rosetta mission successfully went into orbit around a comet (and then when the mission ended), when New Horizons successfully flew by Pluto, my social media feeds were filled with people around the world rejoicing together.
Being inclusive and encouraging diversity are “mission critical” for going to space, said astrophysicist Jedidah Isler at the recent White House Frontiers Conference. “We have both the opportunity and the obligation to engage our entire population in this epic journey [into space],” she said.
Also at White House Frontiers, President Obama said that “Problem solving through science, together we can tackle some of the biggest challenges we face.”
Dedication and Commitment
Another human aspect that stood out during my interviews is the dedication and commitment of the people who work on these missions to explore the cosmos. Interview after interview, I was amazed by the enthusiasm and excitement embodied by these scientists and engineers, their passion for what they do. I truly hope that in the book, I was able to capture and convey their incredible spirit of exploration and discovery.
Space exploration takes people working long hours, figuring out how to do things that have never been done before, and never giving up to succeed. Alan Stern, Principal investigator for the New Horizons mission to Pluto explained how it took “dedication from 2,500 people around the country who worked all day plus nights and weekends for over 15 years” for the mission to makes its successful flyby of Pluto in July 2015. The dedication continues as the New Horizons team has their sights on another ancient body in the Kuiper Belt that the spacecraft will explore in January 2019.
Taking the larger view.
Space exploration helps us look beyond ourselves.
“A lot of space exploration is taking you out of the trees so you get a glimpse of the forest,” Rich Zurek told me when I visited him at JPL this year. Zurek is the head of NASA’s Mars exploration program, as well as the Project Scientist for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. “A classic example is the Apollo 8 view of the Earth over the Moon’s horizon. You can imagine what the planet looks like but when you actually see it, it is very different and can evoke many different things.”
The first views of Earth from space and seeing the fragileness of our planet from a distance help launch the environmental movement in the 1970’s, which continues today. That planetary perspective is crucial to the future of humanity and our ability solve world-wide problems.
“Working on a project like this gives meaning in general because you are doing something that is outside of yourself, outside of our personal problems and struggles, and you really think about the human condition,” said Natalie Batalha, who is the mission scientist for the Kepler missions’ hunt for planets around distant stars. “Kepler really makes us think about the bigger picture of why we’re here and what we’re evolving towards and what else might be out there.”
Space explorations expands our horizons, feeds our curiosity, and helps us finding all sorts of unexpected things while helping to answer profound questions like how did the Universe begin? How did life begin? Are we alone?
Does that sound too utopian? Like in Star Trek, space exploration offers an optimistic view of the future, and humanity. Star Trek’s “Infinite Diversity from Infinite Combinations” says the only way we grow is through new ideas and experiences, and as soon as we stop exploring, we stop growing.
“We are all confined to Earth but yet we reach out and undertake these grand adventures to space,” said Marc Rayman, who is the director and chief engineer for the Dawn mission to the asteroid belt. He is one of the most passionate people – passionate about space exploration and life itself — I’ve ever talked to. “We do this in order to comprehend the majesty of the cosmos and to express and act upon this passion we feel for exploration. Who hasn’t looked at the night sky in wonder? Who hasn’t wanted to go over the next horizon and see what is beyond? Who doesn’t long to know the universe?”
“Anyone who has ever felt any of those feelings is a part of our mission,” Rayman continued. “We are doing this together. And that’s what I think is the most exciting, gratifying, rewarding and profound aspect of exploring the cosmos.”
Water has been showing up in all sorts of unexpected places in our Solar System, such as the Moon, Mercury and Jupiter’s moon Ganymede. Add one more place to the list: Asteroid 16 Psyche. This metal-rich asteroid may have traces of water molecules on its surface that shouldn’t be there, researchers say.
Psyche is thought to be the largest metallic asteroid in the Solar System, at 300 km (186 miles) across and likely consists of almost pure nickel-iron metal. Scientists had thought Psyche was made up of the leftover core of a protoplanet that was mostly destroyed by impacts billions of years ago, but they may now be rethinking that.
“The detection of a 3 micron hydration absorption band on Psyche suggests that this asteroid may not be metallic core, or it could be a metallic core that has been impacted by carbonaceous material over the past 4.5 Gyr,” the team said in their paper.
While previous observations of Psyche had shown no evidence for water on its surface, new observations with the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility found evidence for volatiles such as water or hydroxyl on the asteroid’s surface. Hydroxyl is a free radical consisting of one hydrogen atom bound to one oxygen atom.
“We did not expect a metallic asteroid like Psyche to be covered by water and/or hydroxyl,” said Vishnu Reddy, from the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, a co-author of the new paper about Psyche. “Metal-rich asteroids like Psyche are thought to have formed under dry conditions without the presence of water or hydroxyl, so we were puzzled by our observations at first.”
Asteroids usually fall into two categories: those rich in silicates, and those rich in carbon and volatiles. Metallic asteroids like Psyche are extremely rare, making it a laboratory to study how planets formed.
For now, the source of the water on Psyche remains a mystery. But Redddy and his colleagues propose a few different explanations. One is, again, Psyche may not be as metallic as previously thought. Another option is that the water or hydroxyl could be the product of solar wind interacting with silicate minerals on Psyche’s surface, such as what is occurring on the Moon.
The most likely explanation, however is that the water seen on Psyche might have been delivered by carbonaceous asteroids that impacted Psyche in the distant past, as is thought to have occurred on early Earth.
“Our discovery of carbon and water on an asteroid that isn’t supposed to have those compounds supports the notion that these building blocks of life could have been delivered to our Earth early in the history of our solar system,” said Reddy.
If we’re lucky, we won’t have to wait too long to find out more about Psyche. A mission to Psyche is on the short list of mission proposals being considered by NASA, with a potential launch as early as 2020. Reddy and team said an orbiting spacecraft could explore this unique asteroid and determine if whether there is water or hydroxyl on the surface.