Boulder Extraction and Robotic Arm Mechanisms For NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission Start Rigorous Testing at NASA Goddard

NASA GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTER, MD – Rigorous testing has begun on the advanced robotic arm and boulder extraction mechanisms that are key components of the unmanned probe at the heart of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM) now under development to pluck a multi-ton boulder off a near-Earth asteroid so that astronauts visiting later in an Orion crew capsule can harvest a large quantity of samples for high powered scientific analysis back on Earth. Universe Today inspected the robotic arm hardware utilizing “leveraged robotic technology” during an up close visit and exclusive interview with the engineering development team at NASA Goddard.

“The teams are making great progress on the capture mechanism that has been delivered to the robotics team at Goddard from Langley,” NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot told Universe Today.

“NASA is developing these common technologies for a suite of missions like satellite servicing and refueling in low Earth orbit as well as autonomously capturing an asteroid about 100 million miles away,” said Ben Reed, NASA Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office (SSCO) Deputy Project Manager, during an exclusive interview and hardware tour with Universe Today at NASA Goddard in Greenbelt, Maryland, regarding concepts and goals for the overall Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) initiative.

NASA is leveraging technology originally developed for satellite servicing such as with the Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM) currently on board the International Space Station (ISS) and repurposing them for the asteroid retrieval mission.

“Those are our two near term mission objectives that we are developing these technologies for,” Reed explained.

ARRM combines both robotic and human missions to advance the new technologies required for NASA’s agency wide ‘Journey to Mars’ objective of sending a human mission to the Martian system in the 2030s.

The unmanned Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM) to grab a boulder is the essential first step towards carrying out the follow on sample retrieval with the manned Orion Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) by the mid-2020s.

ARRM will use a pair of highly capable robotic arms to autonomously grapple a multi-ton (> 20 ton) boulder off the surface of a large near-Earth asteroid and transport it to a stable, astronaut accessible orbit around the Moon in cislunar space.

“Things are moving well. The teams have made really tremendous progress on the robotic arm and capture mechanism,” Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, told Universe Today.

Then an Orion crew capsule can fly to it and the astronauts will collect a large quantity of rock samples and gather additional scientific measurements.

“We are working on a system to rendezvous, capture and service different [target] clients using the same technologies. That is what we are working on in a nut shell,” Reed said.

This engineering design unit of the robotic servicing arm is under development to autonomously extract a boulder off an asteroid for NASA’s asteroid retrieval mission and  is being tested at NASA Goddard.   It has seven degrees of freedom and mimics a human arm.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
This engineering design unit of the robotic servicing arm is under development to autonomously extract a boulder off an asteroid for NASA’s asteroid retrieval mission and is being tested at NASA Goddard. It has seven degrees of freedom and mimics a human arm. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“Right now the plan is to launch ARRM by about December 2020,” Reed told me. But a huge amount of preparatory work across the US is required to turn NASA’s plan into reality.

Key mission enabling technologies are being tested right now with a new full scale engineering model of the ‘Robotic Servicing Arm’ and a full scale mockup of the boulder snatching ARRM Capture Module at NASA Goddard, in a new facility known as “The Cauldron.”

Capture Module comprising two robotic servicing arms and three boulder grappling contact and restraint system legs for NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM).   Credit: NASA
Capture Module comprising two robotic servicing arms and three boulder grappling contact and restraint system legs for NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM). Credit: NASA
The ARRM capture module is comprised of two shorter robotic arms (separated by 180 degrees) and three lengthy contact and restraint system capture legs (separated by 120 degrees) attached to a cradle with associated avionics, computers and electronics and the rest of the spacecraft and solar electric power arrays.

“The robotic arm we have here now is an engineering development unit. The 2.2 meter-long arms can be used for assembling large telescopes, repairing a failed satellite, removing orbital debris and capturing an asteroid,” said Reed.

“There are two little arms and three big capture legs.”

“So, we are leveraging one technology development program into multiple NASA objectives.”

“We are working on common technologies that can service a legacy orbiting satellite, not designed to be serviced, and use those same technologies with some tweaking that we can go out with 100 million miles and capture an asteroid and bring it back to the vicinity of the Moon.”

“Currently the [capture module] system can handle a boulder that’s up to about 3 x 4 x 5 meters in diameter.”

Artists concept of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission capturing an asteroid boulder before redirecting it to a astronaut-accessible orbit around Earth's moon.  Credits: NASA
Artists concept of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission capturing an asteroid boulder before redirecting it to a astronaut-accessible orbit around Earth’s moon. Credits: NASA

The Cauldron is a brand new Goddard facility for testing technologies and operations for multiple exploration and science missions, including satellite servicing and ARRM that just opened in June 2015 for the centers Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office.

Overall project lead for ARRM is the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) with numerous contributions from other NASA centers and industrial partners.

“This is an immersive development lab where we bring systems together and can do lifetime testing to simulate what’s in space. This is our robotic equivalent to the astronauts NBL, or neutral buoyancy lab,” Reed elaborated.

“So with this same robotic arm that can cut wires and thermal blankets and refuel an Earth sensing satellite, we can now have that same arm go out on a different mission and be able to travel out and pick up a multi-ton boulder and bring it back for astronauts to harvest samples from.”

“So that’s quite a technical feat!”

The Robotic Servicing Arm is a multi-jointed powerhouse designed to function like a “human arm” as much as possible. It builds on extensive prior research and development investment efforts conducted for NASA’s current Red Planet rovers and a flight-qualified robotic arm developed for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

“The arm is capable of seven-degrees-of-freedom to mimic the full functionally of a human arm. It has heritage from the arm on Mars right now on Curiosity as well as ground based programs from DARPA,” Reed told me.

“It has three degrees of freedom at our shoulder, two at our elbow and two more at the wrist. So I can hold the hand still and move the elbow.”

The arm will also be equipped with a variety of interchangeable “hands” that are basically tools to carry out different tasks with the asteroid such as grappling, drilling, sample gathering, imaging and spectrometric analysis, etc.

View of the robotic arm above and gripper tool below that initially grabs the asteroid boulder before the capture legs wrap around as planned for NASA’s upcoming unmanned ARRM Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission that will later dock with an Orion crew vehicle. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
View of the robotic arm above and gripper tool below that initially grabs the asteroid boulder before the capture legs wrap around as planned for NASA’s upcoming unmanned ARRM Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission that will later dock with an Orion crew vehicle. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The ARRM spacecraft will carefully study, characterize and photograph the asteroid in great detail for about a month before attempting the boulder capture.

Why does the arm need all this human-like capability?

“When we arrive at an asteroid that’s 100 million miles away, we are not going to know the fine local geometry until we arrive,” Reed explained to Universe Today.

“Therefore we need a flexible enough arm that can accommodate local geometries at the multi-foot scale. And then a gripper tool that can handle those geometry facets at a much smaller scale.”

“Therefore we chose seven-degrees-of-freedom to mimic humans very much by design. We also need seven-degrees-of-freedom to conduct collision avoidance maneuvers. You can’t do that with a six-degree-of-freedom arm. It has to be seven to be a general purpose arm.”

How will the ARRM capture module work to snatch the boulder off the asteroid?

“So the idea is you come to the mother asteroid and touch down and make contact on the surface. Then you hold that position and the two arms reach out and grab the boulder.”

“Once its grabbed the boulder, then the legs straighten and pull the boulder off the surface.”

“Then the arms nestle the asteroid onto a cradle. And the legs then change from a contact system to become a restraint system. So the legs wrap around the boulder to restrain it for the 100 million mile journey back home.

“After that the little arms can let go – because the legs have wrapped around and are holding the asteroid.”

“So now the arm can also let go of the gripper system and pick up a different tool to do other things. For example they can collect a sample with another tool. And maybe assist an astronaut after the crew arrives.”

“During the 100 million mile journey back to lunar orbit they can be also be preparing the surface and cutting into it for later sample collection by the astronauts.”

Be sure to watch this video animation:

Since the actual asteroid encounter will occur very far away, the boulder grappling will have to be done fully autonomously since there will be no possibility for real time communications.

“The return time for communications is like about 30 minutes. So ‘human in the loop’ control is out of the question.

“Once we get into hover position over the landing site we hit the GO button. Then it will be very much like at Mars and the seven minutes of terror. It will take awhile to find out if it worked.”

Therefore the team at Goddard has already spent years of effort and practice sessions just to get ready for working with the early engineering version of the arm to maximize the probability of a successful capture.

“In this facility we put systems together to try and practice and rehearse and simulate as much of the mission as is realistically possible.”

“It took a lot of effort to get to this point, in the neighborhood of four years to get the simulation to behave correctly in real time with contact dynamics and the robotic systems. So the arm has to touch the boulder with force torque sensors and feed that into a computer to measure that and move the actuators to respond accordingly.”

“So the capture of the boulder is autonomous. The rest is teleoperated from the ground, but not the capture itself.”

How realistic are the rehearsals?

“We are practicing here by reaching out with the arm to grasp the client target using autonomous capture [procedures]. In space the client [target] is floating and maybe tumbling. So when we reach out with the arm to practice autonomous capture we make the client tumble and move – with the inertial properties of the target we are practicing on.”

“Now for known objects like satellites we know the mass precisely. And we can program all that inertial property data in very accurately to give us much more realistic simulations.”

“We learned from all our astronaut servicing experiences in orbit is that the more we know for the simulations, the easier and better the results are for the astronauts during an actual mission because you simulated all the properties.”

“But with this robotic mission to an asteroid there is no backup like astronauts. So we want to practice here at Goddard and simulate the space environment.”

ARRM will launch by the end of 2020 on either an SLS, Delta IV Heavy or a Falcon Heavy. NASA has not yet chosen the launch vehicle.

Several candidate asteroids have already been discovered and NASA has an extensive ongoing program to find more.

Orion crew capsule docks to NASA’s asteroid redirect vehicle grappling captured asteroid boulder orbiting the Moon. Credit: NASA
Orion crew capsule docks to NASA’s asteroid redirect vehicle grappling captured asteroid boulder orbiting the Moon. Credit: NASA

Again, this robotic technology was selected for development for ARRM because it has a lot in common with other objectives like fixing communications satellites, refueling satellites and building large telescopes in the future.

NASA is also developing other critical enabling technologies for the entire ARM project like solar electric propulsion that will be the subject of another article.

Therefore NASA is leveraging one technology development program into multiple spaceflight objectives that will greatly assist its plans to send ‘Humans to Mars’ in the 2030s with the Orion crew module launched by the monster Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.

The maiden uncrewed launch of the Orion/SLS stack is slated for November 2018.

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

Ken Kremer

At NASA Goddard robotics lab Ben Reed/NASA Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office (SSCO) Deputy Project Manager and Ken Kremer/Universe Today discuss the robotic servicing arm and asteroid boulder capture mechanism being tested for NASA’s upcoming unmanned ARRM Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission that will dock with an Orion crew vehicle in lunar orbit by the mid 2020s for sample return collection. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
At NASA Goddard robotics lab Ben Reed/NASA Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office (SSCO) Deputy Project Manager and Ken Kremer/Universe Today discuss the robotic servicing arm and asteroid boulder capture mechanism being tested for NASA’s upcoming unmanned ARRM Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission that will dock with an Orion crew vehicle in lunar orbit by the mid 2020s for sample return collection. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

See EPIC Views of Rotating Earth Daily from NASA’s New DSCOVR Observatory Website

At long last, beautiful new high resolution views of the rotating Earth can be seen daily by everyone at a new NASA website – all courtesy of images taken by NASA’s EPIC camera on board the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) spacecraft. And as seen in the time-lapse animation above, they provide a wonderful new asset for students everywhere to learn geography that’s just a finger tip away!

The EPIC camera, which stands for Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC), is located a million miles away on the DSCOVR real time space weather monitoring satellite and is designed to take full disk color images of the sunlit side of our home planet multiple times per day.

The EPIC NASA images are literally just a finger tip away, after a 17 year wait to get the satellite into the launch queue since it was first proposed by former VP Al Gore. They are all easily viewed at NASA’s new EPIC camera website which went online today, Monday, October 19, 2015.

To see the daily sequence of rotating images, visit the EPIC website link: http://epic.gsfc.nasa.gov/

This EPIC image was taken on Oct.17 and shows the Australian continent and a portion of Asia.

EPIC image taken on Oct. 17, 2015 showing the continent of Australia and a portion of Asia. Credit: NASA
EPIC image taken on Oct. 17, 2015 showing the continent of Australia and a portion of Asia. Credit: NASA

An annotated guide map illustration identifying the visible land masses accompanies each EPIC image and follows along as the Earth rotates daily.

What a great geography learning tool for student classrooms worldwide!

Annotated guide map identifying the visible land masses accompanies each EPIC image. Credit: NASA
Annotated guide map identifying the visible land masses accompanies each EPIC image. Credit: NASA

DSCOVR is a joint mission between NOAA, NASA, and the U.S Air Force (USAF) that is managed by NOAA. The satellite and science instruments were provided by NASA and NOAA.

EPIC is a four megapixel CCD camera and telescope mounted on DSCOVR and orbiting around the L1 Lagrange Point – a neutral gravity point that lies on the direct line between Earth and the sun.

NASA says that once per day they will post “at least a dozen new color images of Earth acquired from 12 to 36 hours earlier” taken by the agency’s EPIC camera. The EPIC images will be stored in an archive searchable by date and continent.

The image sequence will show “the Earth as it rotates, thus revealing the whole globe over the course of a day.”

“The effective resolution of the DSCOVR EPIC camera is somewhere between 6.2 and 9.4 miles (10 and 15 kilometers),” said Adam Szabo, DSCOVR project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland, in a statement.

“The color Earth images are created by combining three separate single-color images to create a photographic-quality image equivalent to a 12-megapixel camera. The camera takes a series of 10 images using different narrowband filters — from ultraviolet to near infrared — to produce a variety of science products. The red, green and blue channel images are used to create the color images. Each image is about 3 megabytes in size.”

EPIC will capture “a constant view of the fully illuminated Earth as it rotates, providing scientific observations of ozone, vegetation, cloud height and aerosols in the atmosphere.”

Technician works on NASA Earth science instruments and Earth imaging EPIC camera (white circle) housed on NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) inside NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room in November 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Technician works on NASA Earth science instruments and Earth imaging EPIC camera (white circle) housed on NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) inside NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room in November 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The couch sized probe was launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 on Feb. 11, 2015 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, to start the million mile journey to its deep space observation post at L1. The rocket was funded by the USAF.

The primary goal of the $340 million DSCOVR satellite is to monitor the solar wind and aid very important forecasts of space weather at Earth from L1.

L1 is located 1.5 million kilometers (932,000 miles) sunward from Earth. At L1 the gravity between the sun and Earth is perfectly balanced and the DSCOVR satellite orbits about that spot just like a planet.

The mission is vital because its solar wind observations are crucial to maintaining accurate space weather forecasts to protect US infrastructure such as power grids, aviation, planes in flight, all types of Earth orbiting satellites for civilian and military needs, telecommunications, ISS astronauts and GPS systems.

This animation shows images of the far side of the moon, illuminated by the sun, as it crosses between the DISCOVR spacecraft's Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) camera and telescope, and the Earth - one million miles away.  Credit: NASA/NOAA
This animation shows images of the far side of the moon, illuminated by the sun, as it crosses between the DISCOVR spacecraft’s Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) camera and telescope, and the Earth – one million miles away. Credit: NASA/NOAA

DSCOVR was first proposed in 1998 by then US Vice President Al Gore as the low cost ‘Triana’ satellite to take near continuous views of the Earth’s entire globe to feed to the internet as a means of motivating students to study math and science.

It was also dubbed “Goresat.”

The probe was eventually resurrected and partially rebuilt at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center as a much more capable Earth science satellite that would also conduct the space weather observations.

But Triana was shelved for purely partisan political reasons and the satellite was placed into storage at NASA Goddard.

Thus the practical and teachable science and daily scenes of the gorgeously rotating Earth were lost – until now!

Former VP Al Gore was clearly delighted with today’s launch of NASA’s EPIC website in this pair of tweets:

“Today @NASA launched its site for #DSCOVR’s daily images. I look forward to seeing more from #DSCOVR,” tweeted Al Gore.

“DSCOVR’s site displaying new daily images of Earth from L1 was launched today! Congratulations to all those who made this happen!”

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

Ken Kremer

NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) undergoes processing in NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room. Solar wind instruments at right. DSCOVER will launch in February 2015 atop SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) undergoes processing in NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room. Solar wind instruments at right. DSCOVER launched in February 2015 atop SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NOAA/NASA/USAF Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) undergoes processing in NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room.  Probe will launch in February atop SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NOAA/NASA/USAF Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) undergoes processing in NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room. Probe launched in February 2015 atop SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Next Generation of Exploration: The DAVINCI Spacecraft

It’s no secret that there has been a resurgence in interest in space exploration in recent years. Much of the credit for this goes to NASA’s ongoing exploration efforts on Mars, which in the past few years have revealed things like organic molecules on the surface, evidence of flowing water, and that the planet once had a denser atmosphere –  all of which indicate that the planet may have once been hospitable to life.

But when it comes to the future, NASA is looking beyond Mars to consider missions that will send missions to Venus, near-Earth objects, and a variety of asteroids. With an eye to Venus, they are busy investigating the possibility of sending the Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging (DAVINCI) spacecraft to the planet by the 2020s.

Led by Lori Glaze of the Goddard Spaceflight Center, the DAVINCI descent craft would essentially pick up where the American and Soviet space programs left off with the Pioneer and Venera Programs in the 1970s and 80s. The last time either country sent a probe into Venus’ atmosphere was in 1985, when the Soviet probes Vega 1 and 2 both orbited the planet and released a balloon-supported aerobot into the upper atmosphere.

Model of the Vega 1 solar system probe bus and landing apparatus (model) - Udvar-Hazy Center, Dulles International Airport, Chantilly, Virginia, USA. Credit: historicspacecraft.com
Model of the Vega 1 probe and landing apparatus at the Udvar-Hazy Center, Dulles International Airport, Chantilly, Virginia. Credit: historicspacecraft.com

These probes both remained operational for 46 hours and discovered just how turbulent and powerful Venus’ atmosphere was. In contrast, the DAVINCI probe’s mission will be to study both the atmosphere and surface of Venus, and hopefully shed some light on some of the planet’s newfound mysteries. According to the NASA release:

“DAVINCI would study the chemical composition of Venus’ atmosphere during a 63-minute descent. It would answer scientific questions that have been considered high priorities for many years, such as whether there are volcanoes active today on the surface of Venus and how the surface interacts with the atmosphere of the planet.”

These studies will attempt to build upon the data obtained by the Venus Express spacecraft, which in 2008/2009 noted the presence of several infrared hot spots in the Ganis Chasma region near the the shield volcano of Maat Mons (shown below). Believed to be due to volcanic eruptions, this activity was thought to be responsible for significant changes that were noted in the sulfur dioxide (SO²) content in the atmosphere at the time.

What’s more, the Pioneer Venus spacecraft – which studied the planet’s atmosphere from 1978 until its orbit decayed in 1992 – noted a tenfold decreased in the density of SO² at the cloud tops, which was interpreted as a decline following an episode of volcanogenic upwelling from the lower atmosphere.

3-D perspective of the Venusian volcano, Maat Mons generated from radar data from NASA’s Magellan mission.
3-D perspective of the Venusian volcano, Maat Mons, generated from radar data from NASA’s Magellan mission. Credit: NASA/JPL

Commonly associated with volcanic activity here on Earth, SO² is a million times more abundant in Venus’ atmosphere, where it helps to power the runaway greenhouse effect that makes the planet so inhospitable. However, any SO² released into Venus’ atmosphere is also short-lived, being broken down by sunlight within a matter of days.

Hence, any significant changes in SO² levels in the upper atmosphere must have been a recent addition, and some scientists believe that the spike observed in 2008/2009 was due to a large volcano (or several) erupting. Determining whether or not this is the case, and whether or not volcanic activity plays an active role in the composition of Venus’s thick atmosphere, will be central to DAVINCI’s mission.

Along with four other mission concepts, DAVINCI was selected as a semifinalist for the NASA Discovery Program‘s latest calls for proposed missions. Every few years, the Discovery Program – a low-cost planetary missions program that is managed by the JPL’s Planetary Science Division – puts out a call for missions with an established budget of around $500 million (not counting the cost of launch or operation).

The latest call for submissions took place in February 2014, as part of the Discovery Mission 13. At the time, a total of 27 teams threw their hats into the ring to become part of the next round of space exploration missions. Last Wednesday, September 30th, 2015, five semifinalists were announced, one (or possibly two) of which will be chosen as the winner(s) by September 2016.

Artist rendition of NASA’s Mars InSight (Interior exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) Lander. InSight is based on the proven Phoenix Mars spacecraft and lander design with state-of-the-art avionics from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) missions. Credit: JPL/NASA
Artist rendition of NASA’s Mars InSight (Interior exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) Lander, which was selected as part of the Discovery Programs 2010 call for submissions and will be launched by 2016. Credit: JPL/NASA

These finalists will receive $3 million in federal grants for detailed concept studies, and the mission (or missions) that are ultimately chosen will be launched by December 31st, 2021. The Discovery Program began back in 1992, and launched its first mission- the Mars Pathfinder – in 1996. Other Discovery missions include the NEAR Shoemaker probe that first orbited an asteroid, and the Stardust-NExT project, which returned samples of comet and interstellar dust to Earth.

NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft, the planet-hunting Kepler telescope, and the Dawn spacecraft were also developed and launched under the Discovery program. The winning proposal of the Discovery Program’s 12th mission, which was issued back in 2010, was the InSight Mars lander. Set to launch in March of 2016, the lander will touch down on the red planet, deploy instruments to the planet’s interior, and measure its seismic activity.

NASA hopes to infuse the next mission with new technologies, offering up government-furnished equipment with incentives to sweeten the deal for  each proposal. These include a supply of deep space optical communications system that are intended to test new high-speed data links with Earth. Science teams that choose to incorporate the laser telecom unit will be entitled to an extra $30 million above their $450 million cost cap.

If science teams wish to send entry probes into the atmospheres of Venus or Saturn, they will need a new type of heat shield. Hence, NASA’s solicitation includes a provision to furnish a newly-developed 3D-woven heat shield with a $10 million incentive. A deep space atomic clock is also available with a $5 million bonus, and NASA has offered to provide xenon ion thrusters and radioisotope heater units without incentives.

As with previous Discovery missions, NASA has stipulated that the mission must use solar power, limiting mission possibilities beyond Jupiter and Saturn. Other technologies may include the NEXT ion thruster and/or re-entry technology.

NASA’s MMS Satellite Constellation Blasts to Orbit to Study Explosive Magnetic Reconnection

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – NASA’s constellation of state-of-the-art magnetospheric science satellites successfully rocketed to orbit late Thursday night, March 12, during a spectacular nighttime launch on a mission to unravel the mysteries of the process known as magnetic reconnection.

The $1.1 Billion Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission is comprised of four formation flying satellites blasted to Earth orbit atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, precisely on time at 10:44 p.m. EDT.

Magnetic reconnection is a little understood natural process whereby magnetic fields around Earth connect and disconnect while explosively releasing vast amounts of energy. It occurs throughout the universe.

NASA’s fleet of four MMS spacecraft will soon start the first mission devoted to studying the phenomenon called magnetic reconnection. Scientists believe that it is the catalyst for some of the most powerful explosions in our solar system.

The night launch of the venerable Atlas V booster turned night into day as the 195 foot tall rocket roared to life on the fiery fury of about a million and a half pounds of thrust, thrilling spectators all around the Florida space coast and far beyond.

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
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

NASA’s four Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft were stacked like pancakes on top of one another and encapsulated inside the rocket extended nose cone atop the Atlas V.

The venerable rocket continues to enjoy a 100% success rate. It launched in the Atlas V 421 configuration with a 4-meter diameter Extra Extended Payload Fairing along with two Aerojet Rocketdyne solid rocket motors attached to the Atlas booster first stage.

The two stage Atlas V delivered the MMS satellites to a highly elliptical orbit. They were then deployed from the rocket’s Centaur upper stage sequentially, in five-minute intervals beginning at 12:16 a.m. Friday, March 13. The last separation occurred at 12:31 a.m.

About 10 minutes later at 12:40 a.m., NASA scientists and engineers confirmed the health of all four spacecraft.

“I am speaking for the entire MMS team when I say we’re thrilled to see all four of our spacecraft have deployed and data indicates we have a healthy fleet,” said Craig Tooley, project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Artist's concept of the MMS observatory fleet with rainbow magnetic lines. Image Credit: NASA
Artist’s concept of the MMS observatory fleet with rainbow magnetic lines. Image Credit: NASA

This marked ULA’s 3rd launch in 2015, the 53nd Atlas V mission and the fourth Atlas V 421 launch in the programs life.

Each of the identically instrumented spacecraft are about four feet tall and eleven feet wide.

The deployment and activation of all four spacecraft is absolutely essential to the success of the mission, said Jim Burch, principal investigator of the MMS instrument suite science team at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio, Texas.

They will fly in a pyramid formation to conduct their science mission, spaced about 10 miles apart. That separation distance will vary over time during the two year primary mission.

NASA scientists and engineers will begin deploying multiple booms and antennas on the spacecraft in a few days, MMS mission scientist Glyn Collinson of NASA Goddard told Universe Today.

The deployment and calibration process will last about six months, Collinson explained. Science observations are expected to begin in September 2015.

Technicians work on NASA’s 20-foot-tall Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mated quartet of stacked observatories in the cleanroom at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
Technicians work on NASA’s 20-foot-tall Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mated quartet of stacked observatories in the cleanroom at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

“After a decade of planning and engineering, the science team is ready to go to work,” said Burch.

“We’ve never had this type of opportunity to study this fundamental process in such detail.”

The spacecraft will fly in a tight formation through regions of reconnection activity.

The instruments will conduct their science observations at rates100 times faster than any previous mission.

“MMS is a crucial next step in advancing the science of magnetic reconnection – and no mission has ever observed this fundamental process with such detail,” said Jeff Newmark, interim director for NASA’s Heliophysics Division at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington.

“The depth and detail of our knowledge is going to grow by leaps and bounds, in ways that no one can yet predict.”

MMS measurements should lead to significant improvements in models for yielding better predictions of space weather and thereby the resulting impacts for life here on Earth as well as for humans aboard the ISS and robotic satellite explorers in orbit and the heavens beyond.

The best place to study magnetic reconnection is ‘in situ’ in Earth’s magnetosphere. This will lead to better predictions of space weather phenomena.

Magnetic reconnection is also believed to help trigger the spectacular aurora known as the Northern or Southern lights.

NASA MMS spacecraft fly in a pyramid pattern to capture the 3-D structure of the reconnection sites encountered. Credit: NASA
NASA MMS spacecraft fly in a pyramid pattern to capture the 3-D structure of the reconnection sites encountered. Credit: NASA

MMS is a Solar Terrestrial Probes Program, or STP, mission within NASA’s Heliophysics Division. The probes were built, integrated and tested at NASA Goddard which is responsible for overall mission management and operations.

Watch for Ken’s ongoing MMS coverage. He was onsite at the Kennedy Space Center in the days leading up to the launch and for the liftoff on March 12.

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

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about MMS, Mars rovers, Orion, SpaceX, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Mar 13: “MMS, Orion, SpaceX, Antares, Curiosity Explores Mars,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

The Atlas V with MMS launches, as seen by this camera placed in the front of the launchpad. Copyright © Alex Polimeni
The Atlas V with MMS launches, as seen by this camera placed in the front of the launchpad. Copyright © Alex Polimeni
The Atlas V with MMS launches on March 12, 2015, as seen by this camera placed in the front of the launchpad. Copyright © Alex Polimeni
The Atlas V with MMS launches on March 12, 2015, as seen by this camera placed in the front of the launchpad. Copyright © Alex Polimeni
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
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
A United Launch Alliance Atlas V 421 rocket is poised for blastoff at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex-41 in preparation for launch of NASA's Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) science mission on March 12, 2015.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
A United Launch Alliance Atlas V 421 rocket is poised for blastoff at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex-41 in preparation for launch of NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) science mission on March 12, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden poses with the agency’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft, mission personnel, Goddard Center Director Chris Scolese and NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld, during visit to the cleanroom at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden poses with the agency’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft, mission personnel, Goddard Center Director Chris Scolese and NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld, during visit to the cleanroom at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
MMS Project Manager Craig Tooley (right) and Ken Kremer (Universe Today) discuss  science objectives of NASA’s upcoming Magnetospheric Multiscale mission by 20 foot tall mated quartet of stacked spacecraft at the cleanroom at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
MMS Project Manager Craig Tooley (right) and Ken Kremer (Universe Today) discuss science objectives of NASA’s upcoming Magnetospheric Multiscale mission by 20 foot tall mated quartet of stacked spacecraft at the cleanroom at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

NASA Unravels Mysteries of Magnetic Reconnection with Nighttime Blastoff of MMS Satellite Quartet – Watch Live

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – A state of the art quartet of identical science satellites aimed at unraveling the mysteries of the process known as magnetic reconnection is slated for a spectacular nighttime blastoff tonight, March 12, atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The $1.1 Billion Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission is comprised of four formation flying and identically instrumented observatories whose objective is providing the first three-dimensional views of a fundamental process in nature known as magnetic reconnection.

Magnetic reconnection is a little understood natural process whereby magnetic fields around Earth connect and disconnect while explosively releasing vast amounts of energy. It occurs throughout the universe.

Liftoff is slated for 10:44 p.m. EDT Thursday March 12 from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

The launch window extends for 30 minutes. You can watch the MMS launch live on NASA TV, below, starting at 8 p.m.



Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream

Spectators ringing the Florida space coast region and ranging well beyond should be treated to a magnificent fireworks display and skyward streak of perhaps several minutes – weather and clouds permitting.

Currently the weather forecast is 70 percent “GO” for favorable conditions at launch time. The primary concerns for a safe and successful launch are for cumulus clouds and thick clouds.

In the event of a 24 hour delay for any reason the weather forecast is 60 percent “GO.”

Technicians work on NASA’s 20-foot-tall Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mated quartet of stacked observatories in the cleanroom at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
Technicians work on NASA’s 20-foot-tall Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mated quartet of stacked observatories in the cleanroom at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

The 195 foot tall rocket and encapsulated MMS satellite payload were rolled out to Space Launch Complex-41 on Wednesday March 10 at 10 a.m. on the Mobile Launch Platform (MLP) about 1800 feet from the Vertical Integration Facility or VIF to the Cape Canaveral pad.

The two stage Atlas V rocket will deliver the MMS constellation to a highly elliptical orbit.

The venerable rocket with a 100% success rate will launch in the Atlas V 421 configuration with a 4-meter diameter Extra Extended Payload Fairing along with two Aerojet Rocketdyne solid rocket motors attached to the Atlas booster first stage.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V 421 rocket is poised for blastoff at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex-41 in preparation for launch of NASA's Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) science mission on March 12, 2015.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
A United Launch Alliance Atlas V 421 rocket is poised for blastoff at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex-41 in preparation for launch of NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) science mission on March 12, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

The Atlas first stage is powered by the RD AMROSS RD-180 engine and the Centaur upper stage is powered by the Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10A engine producing 22,300 lb of thrust.

The first stage is 12.5 ft in diameter and fueled with liquid propellants. The RD-180 burns RP-1 highly purified kerosene and liquid oxygen and delivers 860,200 lb of sea level thrust.

This is ULA’s 4th launch in 2015, the 53nd Atlas V mission and the fourth Atlas V 421 launch.

“This is the perfect time for this mission,” said Jim Burch, principal investigator of the MMS instrument suite science team at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio, Texas.

“MMS is a crucial next step in advancing the science of magnetic reconnection. Studying magnetic reconnection near Earth will unlock the ability to understand how this process works throughout the entire universe.”

After a six month check out phase the probes will start science operation in September.

Unlike previous missions to observe the evidence of magnetic reconnection events, MMS will have sufficient resolution to measure the characteristics of ongoing reconnection events as they occur.

The four probes were built in-house by NASA at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland where I visited them during an inspection tour by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

I asked Bolden to explain the goals of MMS during a one-on-one interview.

“MMS will help us study the phenomena known as magnetic reconnection and help us understand how energy from the sun – magnetic and otherwise – affects our own life here on Earth,” Bolden told Universe Today.

“MMS will study what effects that process … and how the magnetosphere protects Earth.”

MMS measurements should lead to significant improvements in models for yielding better predictions of space weather and thereby the resulting impacts for life here on Earth as well as for humans aboard the ISS and robotic satellite explorers in orbit and the heavens beyond.

The best place to study magnetic reconnection is ‘in situ’ in Earth’s magnetosphere. This will lead to better predictions of space weather phenomena.

Magnetic reconnection is also believed to help trigger the spectacular aurora known as the Northern or Southern lights.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden poses with the agency’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft, mission personnel, Goddard Center Director Chris Scolese and NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld, during visit to the cleanroom at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden poses with the agency’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft, mission personnel, Goddard Center Director Chris Scolese and NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld, during visit to the cleanroom at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

MMS is a Solar Terrestrial Probes Program, or STP, mission within NASA’s Heliophysics Division

Watch for Ken’s ongoing MMS coverage and he’ll be onsite at the Kennedy Space Center in the days leading up to the launch on March 12.

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

Ken Kremer

NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) Spacecraft Set for March Blastoff to study Earth’s Magnetic Reconnection Events

NASA’s first mission dedicated to study the process in nature known as magnetic reconnection undergoing final preparation for launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida in just under two weeks time.

The Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission is comprised of a quartet of identically instrumented observatories aimed at providing the first three-dimensional views of a fundamental process in nature known as magnetic reconnection.

Magnetic reconnection is the process whereby magnetic fields around Earth connect and disconnect while explosively releasing vast amounts of energy. It occurs throughout the universe.

“Magnetic reconnection is one of the most important drivers of space weather events,” said Jeff Newmark, interim director of the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

“Eruptive solar flares, coronal mass ejections, and geomagnetic storms all involve the release, through reconnection, of energy stored in magnetic fields. Space weather events can affect modern technological systems such as communications networks, GPS navigation, and electrical power grids.”

The four MMS have been stacked on top of one another like pancakes, encapsulated in the payload fairing, transported to the launch pad, hoisted and mated to the top of the 195-foot-tall rocket.

NASA's Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) observatories are shown here in the clean room being processed for a March 12, 2015 launch from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.  Credit: NASA/Ben Smegelsky
NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) observatories are shown here in the clean room being processed for a March 12, 2015 launch from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: NASA/Ben Smegelsky

The nighttime launch of MMS on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket should put on a spectacular sky show for local spectators along the Florida space coast as well as more distant located arcing out in all directions.

Liftoff is slated for 10:44 p.m. EDT Thursday March 12 from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

The launch window extends for 30 minutes.

Artist rendition of the four MMS spacecraft in orbit in Earth’s magnetic field. Credit: NASA
Artist rendition of the four MMS spacecraft in orbit in Earth’s magnetic field. Credit: NASA

After a six month check out phase the probes will start science operation in September.

Unlike previous missions to observe the evidence of magnetic reconnection events, MMS will have sufficient resolution to measure the characteristics of ongoing reconnection events as they occur.

The four probes were built in-house by NASA at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland where is visited them during an inspection tour by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

I asked Bolden to explain the goals of MMS during a one-on-one interview.

“MMS will help us study the phenomena known as magnetic reconnection and help us understand how energy from the sun – magnetic and otherwise – affects our own life here on Earth,” Bolden told Universe Today.

“MMS will study what effects that process … and how the magnetosphere protects Earth.”

MMS measurements should lead to significant improvements in models for yielding better predictions of space weather and thereby the resulting impacts for life here on Earth as well as for humans aboard the ISS and robotic satellite explorers in orbit and the heavens beyond.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden poses with the agency’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft, mission personnel, Goddard Center Director Chris Scolese and NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld, during visit to the cleanroom at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden poses with the agency’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft, mission personnel, Goddard Center Director Chris Scolese and NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld, during visit to the cleanroom at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

The best place to study magnetic reconnection is ‘in situ’ in Earth’s magnetosphere. This will lead to better predictions of space weather phenomena.

“This is the perfect time for this mission,” said Jim Burch, principal investigator of the MMS instrument suite science team at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio, Texas.

“MMS is a crucial next step in advancing the science of magnetic reconnection. Studying magnetic reconnection near Earth will unlock the ability to understand how this process works throughout the entire universe.”

Magnetic reconnection is also believed to help trigger the spectacular aurora known as the Northern or Southern lights.

MMS is a Solar Terrestrial Probes Program, or STP, mission within NASA’s Heliophysics Division.

Watch for Ken’s ongoing MMS coverage and he’ll be onsite at the Kennedy Space Center in the days leading up to the launch on March 12.

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

Ken Kremer
………….
Learn more about MMS, Mars rovers, Orion, SpaceX, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Mar 6: “MMS Update, Future of NASA Human Spaceflight, Curiosity on Mars,” Delaware Valley Astronomers Assoc (DVAA), Radnor, PA, 7 PM.

Mar 10-12: “MMS, Orion, SpaceX, Antares, Curiosity Explores Mars,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Space Weather Storm Monitoring Satellite Blasts off for Deep Space on SpaceX Rocket

After a 17 year long wait, a new American mission to monitor intense solar storms and warn of impeding space weather disruptions to vital power grids, telecommunications satellites and public infrastructure was launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 on Wednesday, Feb. 11, from Cape Canaveral, Florida, to start a million mile journey to its deep space observation post.

The third time proved to be the charm when the Deep Space Climate Observatory, or DSCOVR science satellite lifted off at 6:03 p.m. EST Wednesday from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The spectacular sunset blastoff came after two scrubs this week forced by a technical problem with the Air Force tracking radar and adverse weather on Sunday and Tuesday.

The $340 million DSCOVR has a critical mission to monitor the solar wind and aid very important forecasts of space weather at Earth at an observation point nearly a million miles from Earth. It will also take full disk color images of the sunlit side of Earth at least six times per day that will be publicly available and “wow” viewers.

Launch of NOAA DSCOVR satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Feb. 11, 2015 to monitor solar storms and space weather.   Credit:  Julian Leek
Launch of NOAA DSCOVR satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Feb. 11, 2015 to monitor solar storms and space weather. Credit: Julian Leek

The couch sized probe was targeted to the L1 Lagrange Point, a neutral gravity point that lies on the direct line between Earth and the sun located 1.5 million kilometers (932,000 miles) sunward from Earth. At L1 the gravity between the sun and Earth is perfectly balanced and the satellite will orbit about that spot just like a planet.

L1 is a perfect place for the science because it lies outside Earth’s magnetic environment. The probe will measure the constant stream of solar wind particles from the sun as they pass by.

The DSCOVR spacecraft (3-axis stabilized, 570 kg) will be delivered to the Sun-Earth L1 point, 1.5 million km (1 million miles) from the Earth, directly in front of the Sun. A Halo (Lissajous) orbit will stabilize the craft's position around the L1 point while keeping it outside the radio noise emanating from the Sun. (Illustratin Credit: NASA)
The DSCOVR spacecraft (3-axis stabilized, 570 kg) will be delivered to the Sun-Earth L1 point, 1.5 million km (1 million miles) from the Earth, directly in front of the Sun. A Halo (Lissajous) orbit will stabilize the craft’s position around the L1 point while keeping it outside the radio noise emanating from the Sun. (Illustratin Credit: NASA)

DSCOVR is a joint mission between NOAA, NASA, and the U.S Air Force (USAF) that will be managed by NOAA. The satellite and science instruments are provided by NASA and NOAA. The rocket was funded by the USAF.

The mission is vital because its solar wind observations are crucial to maintaining accurate space weather forecasts to protect US infrastructure such as power grids, aviation, planes in flight, all types of Earth orbiting satellites for civilian and military needs, telecommunications, ISS astronauts and GPS systems.

It will take about 150 days to reach the L1 point and complete satellite and instrument checkouts.

DSCOVR will then become the first operational space weather mission to deep space and function as America’s primary warning system for solar magnetic storms.

It will replace NASA’s aging Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) satellite which is nearly 20 years old and far beyond its original design lifetime.

“DSCOVR is the latest example of how NASA and NOAA work together to leverage the vantage point of space to both understand the science of space weather and provide direct practical benefits to us here on Earth,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

DSCOVR was first proposed in 1998 by then US Vice President Al Gore as the low cost ‘Triana’ satellite to take near continuous views of the Earth’s entire globe to feed to the internet as a means of motivating students to study math and science. It was eventually built as a much more capable Earth science satellite that would also conduct the space weather observations.

But Triana was shelved for purely partisan political reasons and the satellite was placed into storage at NASA Goddard and the science was lost until now.

DSCOVR mission logo.  Credit: NOAA/NASA/U.S. Air Force
DSCOVR mission logo. Credit: NOAA/NASA/U.S. Air Force

DSCOVR is equipped with a suite of four continuously operating solar science and Earth science instruments from NASA and NOAA.

It will make simultaneous scientific observations of the solar wind and the entire sunlit side of Earth.

The 750-kilogram (1250 pound) DSCOVR probe measures 54 inches by 72 inches.

Technician works on NASA Earth science instruments and Earth imaging EPIC camera (white circle) housed on NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) inside NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room in November 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/AmericaSpace
Technician works on NASA Earth science instruments and Earth imaging EPIC camera (white circle) housed on NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) inside NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room in November 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/AmericaSpace

The two Earth science instruments from NASA are the Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology Advanced Radiometer (NISTAR).

EPIC will provide true color spectral images of the entire sunlit face of Earth at least six times per day, as viewed from an orbit around L1. They will be publically available within 24 hours via NASA Langley.

It will view the full disk of the entire sunlit Earth from sunrise to sunset and collect a variety of science measurements including on ozone, aerosols, dust and volcanic ash, vegetation properties, cloud heights and more.

Listen to my post launch interview with the BBC about DSCOVR and ESA’s successful IXV launch on Feb. 11.

A secondary objective by SpaceX to recover the Falcon 9 first stage booster on an ocean going barge had to be skipped due to very poor weather and very high waves in the Atlantic Ocean making a safe landing impossible. The stage did successfully complete a soft landing in the ocean.

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

Ken Kremer

NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) undergoes processing in NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room. Solar wind instruments at right. DSCOVER will launch in February 2015 atop SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/AmericaSpace
NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) undergoes processing in NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room. Solar wind instruments at right. DSCOVER will launch in February 2015 atop SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/AmericaSpace
Launch of NOAA DSCOVR satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Feb. 11, 2015 to monitor solar storms and space weather.   Credit:  John Studwell
Launch of NOAA DSCOVR satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Feb. 11, 2015 to monitor solar storms and space weather. Credit: John Studwell
Prelaunch view of SpaceX rocket on Cape Canaveral launch pad taken from LC-39 at the Kennedy Space Center.  Credit: Chuck Higgins
Prelaunch view of SpaceX rocket on Cape Canaveral launch pad taken from LC-39 at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Chuck Higgins

NOAA/NASA/USAF Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) Launching Feb. 8 to Monitor Solar Winds

The long awaited Deep Space Climate Observatory, or DSCOVR science satellite is slated to blast off atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 on Sunday, Feb. 8, from Cape Canaveral, Florida on a mission to monitor the solar wind and aid very important forecasts of space weather at Earth.

DSCOVR is a joint mission between NOAA, NASA, and the U.S Air Force (USAF) that will be managed by NOAA. The satellite and science instruments are provided by NASA and NOAA.

Update Feb 8: Hold, Hold, Hold !!! 6:10 PM 2/8/15 Terminal Count aborted at T Minus 2 min 26 sec due to a tracking issue. NO launch of Falcon 9 today. rocket being safed now. next launch opportunity is Monday. Still TBD.

The rocket is provided by the USAF. SpaceX will try to recover the first stage via a guided descent to a floating barge in the Atlantic Ocean.

The weather outlook is currently very promising with a greater than 90 percent chance of favorable weather at launch time shortly after sunset on Sunday which could make for a spectacular viewing opportunity for spectators surrounding the Florida Space coast.

Liftoff atop the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is targeted for at 6:10:12 p.m. EST on Feb. 8, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 40.

There is an instantaneous launch window, meaning that any launch delay due to weather, technical or other factors will force a scrub to Monday.

The launch will be broadcast live on NASA TV: http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv

NASA’s DSCOVR launch blog coverage of countdown and liftoff will begin at 3:30 p.m. Sunday.

NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) undergoes processing in NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room. Solar wind instruments at right. DSCOVER will launch in February 2015 atop SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/AmericaSpace
NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) undergoes processing in NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room. Solar wind instruments at right. DSCOVER will launch in February 2015 atop SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/AmericaSpace

“DSCOVR is NOAA’s first operational space weather mission to deep space,” said Stephen Volz, assistant administrator of the NOAA Satellite and Information Service in Silver Spring, Maryland, at the pre-launch briefing today (Feb. 7) at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The mission of DSCOVR is vital because its solar wind observations are crucial to maintaining accurate space weather forecasts to protect US infrastructure from disruption by approaching solar storms.

“DSCOVR will maintain the nation’s solar wind observations, which are critical to the accuracy and lead time of NOAA’s space weather alerts, forecasts, and warnings,” according to a NASA description.

“Space weather events like geomagnetic storms caused by changes in solar wind can affect public infrastructure systems, including power grids, telecommunications systems, and aircraft avionics.”

DSCOVR will replace NASA’s aging Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) satellite which is nearly 20 years old and far beyond its original design lifetime.

The couch sized probe is being targeted to the L1 Lagrange Point, a neutral gravity point that lies on the direct line between Earth and the sun located 1.5 million kilometers (932,000 miles) sunward from Earth. At L1 the gravity between the sun and Earth is perfectly balanced and the satellite will orbit about that spot just like a planet.

L1 is a perfect place for the science because it lies outside Earth’s magnetic environment. The probe will measure the constant stream of solar wind particles from the sun as they pass by.

Diagram of the five Lagrange points associated with the sun-Earth system, showing DSCOVR orbiting the L-1 point. Image is not to scale.  Credit:  NASA/WMAP Science Team
Diagram of the five Lagrange points associated with the sun-Earth system, showing DSCOVR orbiting the L-1 point. Image is not to scale. Credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team

This will enable forecasters to give a 15 to 60 minute warning of approaching geomagnetic storms that could damage valuable infrastructure.

DSCOVR is equipped with a suite of four continuously operating solar science and Earth science instruments from NASA and NOAA.

It will make simultaneous scientific observations of the solar wind and the entire sunlit side of Earth.

Three instruments will help measure the solar wind on the DSCOVR mission: (shown from left to right), the Faraday cup to monitor the speed and direction of positively-charged solar wind particles, the electron spectrometer to monitor electrons, and a magnetometer to measure magnetic fields.  Credit: NASA/DSCOVR
Three instruments will help measure the solar wind on the DSCOVR mission: (shown from left to right), the Faraday cup to monitor the speed and direction of positively-charged solar wind particles, the electron spectrometer to monitor electrons, and a magnetometer to measure magnetic fields. Credit: NASA/DSCOVR

The 750-kilogram DSCOVR probe measures 54 inches by 72 inches.

I saw the DSCOVR spacecraft up close at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland last fall during processing in the clean room.

NOAA/NASA/USAF Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) undergoes processing in NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room.  Probe will launch in February atop SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NOAA/NASA/USAF Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) undergoes processing in NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room. Probe will launch in February atop SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

A secondary objective of the rocket launch for SpaceX is to conduct their second attempt to recover the Falcon 9 first stage booster on an ocean going barge. Read my articles about the first attempt in January 2015, starting here.

It was originally named ‘Triana’ (aka Goresat) and was conceived by then US Vice President Al Gore as a low cost satellite to take near continuous views of the Earth’s entire globe to feed to the internet as a means of motivating students to study math and science. It was eventually built as a much more capable Earth science satellite as well as to conduct the space weather observations.

But Triana was shelved for purely partisan political reasons and the satellite was placed into storage and the science was lost until now.

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

Ken Kremer

The team is ready for the launch of NASA's DSCOVR spacecraft aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. L/R Mike Curie KSC NASA News Chief, Stephen Volz, assistant administrator NOAA, Tom Berger, director of NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center Boulder Colorado,Steven Clark, NASA Joint Agency Satellite Division, Col. D. Jason Cothern, Space Demonstration Division chief at Kirkland AFB NM. Hans Koenigsmann, VP of mission assurance at SpaceX in Hawthorne, California, Mike McAlaneen, launch weather officer 45th Space wing Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.  Credit: Julian Leek
The team is ready for the launch of NASA’s DSCOVR spacecraft aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. L/R Mike Curie KSC NASA News Chief, Stephen Volz, assistant administrator NOAA, Tom Berger, director of NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center Boulder Colorado,Steven Clark, NASA Joint Agency Satellite Division, Col. D. Jason Cothern, Space Demonstration Division chief at Kirkland AFB NM. Hans Koenigsmann, VP of mission assurance at SpaceX in Hawthorne, California, Mike McAlaneen, launch weather officer 45th Space wing Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Julian Leek

NASA and NOAA Satellites Image Crippling Blizzard of 2015 Pounding New England

NEW JERSEY – Record breaking snow from the ‘Blizzard of 2015’ hit vast regions of the US Northeast today, Jan. 27, 2015, stretching from Long Island to New England.

NASA and NOAA Earth orbiting satellites are keeping track of the storm affecting millions of residents.

This afternoon the agencies provided a new set of night-time and daytime views of the Blizzard of 2015 taken by the Suomi NPP and the GOES-East satellites.

The crippling blizzard is causing misery, extensive destruction to homes and businesses in localized areas, power outages, traffic accidents, breaks in some sea walls and deaths.

The satellite image above shows a combination of the day-night band and high resolution infrared imagery from the NASA-NOAA’s Suomi NPP satellite.

It was taken as the historic blizzard neared peak intensity as it moved over the New York area and through the Boston Metropolitan areas at 06:45Z (1:45 a.m. EST) on January 27, 2015.

The high cloud tops from the most intense parts of the storm blurred the regions normally bright nighttime lights in the satellite image.

Although the snow totals were about half the over two feet forecast for the New York Metropolitan region, many areas to the north and east were inundated with very heavy to historic snow fall totals, as bad or worse than the forecasters predicted.

Over two feet of snow fell on areas of New York’s Long Island and stretching north to vast regions of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and into Maine.

Near hurricane force waves are crashing into some coastal towns along the Massachusetts shoreline. Wind gusts as high as 78 mph have been recorded.

“Highest snowfall report has been Auburn, MA with 32.5 inches! Wind gust reports as high as 78 mph in Nantucket, MA,” according to a tweet this evening from the National Weather Service (NWS).

Worchester, Mass had a record breaking 31 inches of snow. And it’s still falling this evening in the 2nd largest city in New England.

A flood emergency is in effect in Marshfield, Mass., where an 80 foot section of the seawall was smashed by crashing waves and is destroying homes as shown on NBC Nightly News.

Blinding snow is raging in Portland, Maine this evening according on a live NBC News report.

On January 27, 2015 at 17:35 UTC (12:35 p.m. EST) NOAA's Geostationary Operational Environmental or GOES- East satellite captured an image of the nor'easter over New England. Credit: NASA/NOAA GOES Project
On January 27, 2015 at 17:35 UTC (12:35 p.m. EST) NOAA’s Geostationary Operational Environmental or GOES- East satellite captured an image of the nor’easter over New England. Credit: NASA/NOAA GOES Project

“At 10 a.m. EST, the National Weather Service noted “the powerful nor’easter that brought moderate to heavy snowfall and blizzard conditions to the Northeast on Monday will continue to affect the region on Tuesday, with heavy snow and blizzard conditions expected from eastern Long Island to Maine as the system slowly moves to the northeast. Snow and strong winds will being tapering off from south to north Tuesday night into Wednesday morning,” wrote NASA’s Rob Gutro of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in an update.

“Later on January 27, 2015 at 17:35 UTC (12:35 p.m. EST) NOAA’s Geostationary Operational Environmental or GOES-East satellite captured an image of the nor’easter over New England. The image was created by the NASA/NOAA GOES Project and showed the clouds associated with the nor’easter blanketing New England. An occluded front extended north and eastward out of the low pressure area’s center out into the Atlantic Ocean.”

The latest NOAA forecast as of 4 PM, Jan. 27 states:

HIGH WINDS AND HEAVY SNOW WILL BEGIN TO GRADUALLY TAPER OFF FROM SOUTH TO NORTH TONIGHT…BUT WILL LAST INTO EARLY WEDNESDAY MORNING ACROSS PORTIONS OF MAINE. HEAVY SNOWFALL WILL COMBINE WITH SUSTAINED WINDS OF 30 TO 40 MPH…AND GUSTS IN EXCESS OF 50 MPH…TO CREATE LIFE-THREATENING WHITEOUT OR BLIZZARD CONDITIONS. THESE WINDS MAY LEAD TO DOWNED TREES AND POWER LINES RESULTING IN POWER OUTAGES. TRAVEL WILL BE IMPOSSIBLE AND LIFE-THREATENING IN MANY AREAS. ALONG THE IMMEDIATE COASTLINE…WIND GUSTS TO NEAR 65 MPH WILL BE POSSIBLE. COASTAL FLOODING AND SEVERE BEACH EROSION WILL ALSO BE A POSSIBILITY…AND VULNERABLE ROADS AND STRUCTURES MAY BE FLOODED OR DAMAGED.

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

Reporting from snowy New Jersey.

Ken Kremer

NASA’s Next Exoplanet Hunter Moves Into Development

A conceptual image of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite. Image Credit: MIT

NASA’s ongoing hunt for exoplanets has entered a new phase as NASA officially confirmed that the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is moving into the development phase. This marks a significant step for the TESS mission, which will search the entire sky for planets outside our solar system (a.k.a. exoplanets). Designed as the first all-sky survey, TESS will spend two years of an overall three-year mission searching both hemispheres of the sky for nearby exoplanets.

Previous sky surveys with ground-based telescopes have mainly picked out giant exoplanets. In contrast, TESS will examine a large number of small planets around the very brightest stars in the sky. TESS will then record the nearest and brightest main sequence stars hosting transiting exoplanets, which will forever be the most favorable targets for detailed investigations. During the third year of the TESS mission, ground-based astronomical observatories will continue monitoring exoplanets identified by the TESS spacecraft.

“This is an incredibly exciting time for the search of planets outside our solar system,” said Mark Sistilli, the TESS program executive from NASA Headquarters, Washington. “We got the green light to start building what is going to be a spacecraft that could change what we think we know about exoplanets.”

“During its first two years in orbit, the TESS spacecraft will concentrate its gaze on several hundred thousand specially chosen stars, looking for small dips in their light caused by orbiting planets passing between their host star and us,” said TESS Principal Investigator George Ricker of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology..

Artistic representations of the only known planets around other stars (exoplanets) with any possibility to support life as we know it. Credit: Planetary Habitability Laboratory, University of Puerto Rico, Arecibo.
Artistic representations of known exoplanets with any possibility to support life. Image Credit: Planetary Habitability Laboratory, University of Puerto Rico, Arecibo.

All in all, TESS is expected to find more than 5,000 exoplanet candidates, including 50 Earth-sized planets. It will also find a wide array of exoplanet types, ranging from small, rocky planets to gas giants. Some of these planets could be the right sizes, and orbit at the correct distances from their stars, to potentially support life.

“The most exciting part of the search for planets outside our solar system is the identification of ‘earthlike’ planets with rocky surfaces and liquid water as well as temperatures and atmospheric constituents that appear hospitable to life,” said TESS Project Manager Jeff Volosin at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “Although these planets are small and harder to detect from so far away, this is exactly the type of world that the TESS mission will focus on identifying.”

Now that NASA has confirmed the development of TESS, the next step is the Critical Design Review, which is scheduled to take place in 2015. This would clear the mission to build the necessary flight hardware for its proposed launch in 2017.

“After spending the past year building the team and honing the design, it is incredibly exciting to be approved to move forward toward implementing NASA’s newest exoplanet hunting mission,” Volosin said.

TESS is designed to complement several other critical missions in the search for life on other planets. Once TESS finds nearby exoplanets to study and determines their sizes, ground-based observatories and other NASA missions, like the James Webb Space Telescope, would make follow-up observations on the most promising candidates to determine their density and other key properties.

The James Webb Space Telescope. Image Credit: NASA/JPL
The James Webb Space Telescope. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

By figuring out a planet’s characteristics, like its atmospheric conditions, scientists could determine whether the targeted planet has a habitable environment.

“TESS should discover thousands of new exoplanets within two hundred light years of Earth,” Ricker said. “Most of these will be orbiting bright stars, making them ideal targets for characterization observations with NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.”

“The Webb telescope and other teams will focus on understanding the atmospheres and surfaces of these distant worlds, and someday, hopefully identify the first signs of life outside of our solar system,” Volosin said.

TESS will use four cameras to study sections of the sky’s north and south hemispheres, looking for exoplanets. The cameras would cover about 90 percent of the sky by the end of the mission.

This makes TESS an ideal follow-up to the Kepler mission, which searches for exoplanets in a fixed area of the sky. Because the TESS mission surveys the entire sky, TESS is expected to find exoplanets much closer to Earth, making them easier for further study.

In addition, Ricker said TESS would provide precision, full-frame images for more than 20 million bright stars and galaxies.

“This unique new data will comprise a treasure trove for astronomers throughout the world for many decades to come,” Ricker said.

Now that TESS is cleared to move into the next development stage, it can continue towards its goal of being a key part of NASA’s search for life beyond Earth.

“I’m still hopeful that in my lifetime, we will discover the existence of life outside of our solar system and I’m excited to be part of a NASA mission that serves as a key stepping stone in that search,” Volosin said.

Further Reading: NASA