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.

What is Lunar Regolith?

When you’re walking around on soft ground, do you notice how your feet leave impressions? Perhaps you’ve tracked some of the looser earth in your yard into the house on occasion? If you were to pick up some of these traces – what we refer to as dirt or soil – and examine them beneath a microscope, what would you see?

Essentially, you would be seeing the components of what is known as regolith, which is a collection of particles of dust, soil, broken rock, and other materials found here on Earth. But interestingly enough, this same basic material can be found in other terrestrial environments as well – including the Moon, Mars, other planets, and even asteroids.

Definition:

The term regolith refers to any layer of material covering solid rock, which can come in the form of dust, soil or broken rock. The word is derived from the combination of two Greek words – rhegos (which means “blanket”) and lithos (which means “rock).

Earth:

On Earth, regolith takes the form of dirt, soil, sand, and other components that are formed as a result of natural weathering and biological processes. Due to a combination of erosion, alluvial deposits (i.e. moving water deposing sand), volcanic eruptions, or tectonic activity, the material is slowly ground down and laid out over solid bedrock.

central Yilgarn Craton, Western Australia.
Picture of Mt Magnet in the Central Yilgarn Craton in Western Australia, which dates to the Precambrian Era. Credit: geomorphologie.revues.org

It can be made up of clays, silicates, various minerals, groundwater, and organic molecules. Regolith on Earth can vary from being essentially absent to being hundreds of meters thick. Its can also be very young (in the form of ash, alluvium, or lava rock that was just deposited) to hundreds of millions of years old (regolith dating to the Precambrian age occurs in parts of Australia).

On Earth, the presence of regolith is one of the important factors for most life, since few plants can grow on or within solid rock and animals would be unable to burrow or build shelter without loose material. Regolith is also important for human beings since it has been used since the dawn of civilization (in the form of mud bricks, concrete and ceramics) to build houses, roads, and other civil works.

The difference in terminology between “soil” (aka. dirt, mud, etc.) and “sand” is the presence of organic materials. In the former, it exists in abundance, and is what separates regolith on Earth from most other terrestrial environments in our Solar System.

The Moon:

The surface of the Moon is covered with a fine powdery material that scientists refer to it as “lunar regolith”. Nearly the entire lunar surface is covered with regolith, and bedrock is only visible on the walls of very steep craters.

Earth viewed from the Moon by the Apollo 11 spacecraft. Credit: NASA
Earth viewed from the Moon by the Apollo 11 spacecraft, across a sea of lunar soil. Credit: NASA

The Moon regolith was formed over billions of years by constant meteorite impacts on the surface of the Moon. Scientists estimate that the lunar regolith extends down 4-5 meters in some places, and even as deep as 15 meters in the older highland areas.

When the plans were put together for the Apollo missions, some scientists were concerned that the lunar regolith would be too light and powdery to support the weight of the lunar lander. Instead of landing on the surface, they were worried that the lander would just sink down into it like a snowbank.

However, landings performed by robotic Surveyor spacecraft showed that the lunar soil was firm enough to support a spacecraft, and astronauts later explained that the surface of the Moon felt very firm beneath their feet. During the Apollo landings, the astronauts often found it necessary to use a hammer to drive a core sampling tool into it.

Once astronauts reached the surface, they reported that the fine moon dust stuck to their spacesuits and then dusted the inside of the lunar lander. The astronauts also claimed that it got into their eyes, making them red; and worse, even got into their lungs, giving them coughs. Lunar dust is very abrasive, and has been noted for its ability to wear down spacesuits and electronics.

Alan Bean Takes Lunar Soil Sample
Alan Bean takes a sample of lunar regolith during the Apollo 12 mission. Credit: NASA

The reason for this is because lunar regolith is sharp and jagged. This is due to the fact that the Moon has no atmosphere or flowing water on it, and hence no natural weathering process. When the micro-meteoroids slammed into the surface and created all the particles, there was no process for wearing down its sharp edges.

The term lunar soil is often used interchangeably with “lunar regolith”, but some have argued that the term “soil” is not correct because it is defined as having organic content. However, standard usage among lunar scientists tends to ignore that distinction. “Lunar dust” is also used, but mainly to refer to even finer materials than lunar soil.

As NASA is working on plans to send humans back to the Moon in the coming years, researchers are working to learn the best ways to work with the lunar regolith. Future colonists could mine minerals, water, and even oxygen out of the lunar soil, and use it to manufacture bases with as well.

Mars:

Landers and rovers that have been sent to Mars by NASA, the Russians and the ESA have returned many interesting photographs, showing a landscape that is covered with vast expanses of sand and dust, as well as rocks and boulders.

A successful scoop of Martian regolith (NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Max Planck Institute)
A successful scoop of Martian regolith performed by NASA’s Phoenix lander. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Max Planck Institute

Compared to lunar regolith, Mars dust is very fine and enough remains suspended in the atmosphere to give the sky a reddish hue. The dust is occasionally picked up in vast planet-wide dust storms, which are quite slow due to the very low density of the atmosphere.

The reason why Martian regolith is so much finer than that found on the Moon is attributed to the flowing water and river valleys that once covered its surface. Mars researchers are currently studying whether or not martian regolith is still being shaped in the present epoch as well.

It is believed that large quantities of water and carbon dioxide ices remain frozen within the regolith, which would be of use if and when manned missions (and even colonization efforts) take place in the coming decades.

Mars moon of Deimos is also covered by a layer of regolith that is estimated to be 50 meters (160 feet) thick. Images provided by the Viking 2 orbiter confirmed its presence from a height of 30 km (19 miles) above the moon’s surface.

Asteroids and Outer Solar System:

The only other planet in our Solar System that is known to have regolith is Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. The surface is known for its extensive fields of dunes, though the precise origin of them are not known. Some scientists have suggested that they may be small fragments of water ice eroded by Titan’s liquid methane, or possibly particulate organic matter that formed in Titan’s atmosphere and rained down on the surface.

Another possibility is that a series of powerful wind reversals, which occur twice during a single Saturn year (30 Earth years), are responsible for forming these dunes, which measure several hundred meters high and stretch across hundreds of kilometers.  Currently, Earth scientists are still not certain what Titan’s regolith is composed of.

Data returned by the Huygens Probe’s penetrometer indicated that the surface may be clay-like, but long-term analysis of the data has suggested that it may be composed of sand-like ice grains.  The images taken by the probe upon landing on the moon’s surface show a flat plain covered in rounded pebbles, which may be made of water ice, and suggest the action of moving fluids on them.

Asteroids have been observed to have regolith on their surfaces as well. These are the result of meteoriod impacts that have taken place over the course of millions of years, pulverizing their surfaces and creating dust and tiny particles that are carried within the craters.

False color picture of Eros' 5.3-kilometer (3.3-mile) surface crater, showing regolith inside. Credit: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL
False color picture taken by NASA’s NEAR Shoemaker camera of Eros’ 5.3-kilometer (3.3-mile) surface crater, showing the presence of regolith inside. Credit: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL

NASA’s NEAR Shoemaker spacecraft produced evidence of regolith on the surface of the asteroid 433 Eros, which remains the best images of asteroid regolith to date. Additional evidence has been provided by JAXA’s Hayabusa mission, which returned clear images of regolith on an asteroid that was thought to be too small to hold onto it.

Images provided by the Optical, Spectroscopic, and Infrared Remote Imaging System (OSIRIS) cameras on board the Rosetta Spacecraft confirmed that the asteroid 21 Lutetia has a layer of regolith near its north pole, which was seen to flow in major landslides associated with variations in the asteriod’s albedo.

To break it down succinctly, wherever there is rock, there is likely to be regolith. Whether it is the product of wind or flowing water, or the presence of meteors impacting the surface, good old fashioned “dirt” can be found just about anywhere in our Solar System; and most likely, in the universe beyond…

We’ve done several articles about the Moon’s regolith here on Universe Today. Here’s a way astronauts might be able to extract water from lunar regolith with simple kitchen appliances, and an article about NASA’s search for a lunar digger.

Want to buy some lunar regolith simulant? Here’s a site that lets you buy it. Do you want to be a Moon miner? There’s lots of good metal in that lunar regolith.

You can listen to a very interesting podcast about the formation of the Moon from Astronomy Cast, Episode 17: Where Did the Moon Come From?

Reference:
NASA

European Asteroid Smasher Could Bolster Planetary Defense

Planetary Defense is a concept very few people heard of or took seriously – that is until last week’s humongous and totally unexpected meteor explosion over Russia sent millions of frightened residents ducking for cover, followed just hours later by Earth’s uncomfortably close shave with the 45 meter (150 ft) wide asteroid named 2012 DA14.

This ‘Cosmic Coincidence’ of potentially catastrophic space rocks zooming around Earth is a wakeup call that underscores the need to learn much more about the ever present threat from the vast array of unknown celestial debris in close proximity to Earth and get serious about Planetary Defense from asteroid impacts.

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) proposed Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment mission, or AIDA, could significantly bolster both our basic knowledge about asteroids in our neighborhood and perhaps even begin testing Planetary Defense concepts and deflection strategies.

After two years of work, research teams from the US and Europe have selected the mission’s target – a so called ‘binary asteroid’ named Didymos – that AIDA will intercept and smash into at about the time of its closest approach to Earth in 2022 when it is just 11 million kilometers away.

“AIDA is not just an asteroid mission, it is also meant as a research platform open to all different mission users,” says Andres Galvez, ESA studies manager.

Asteroid Didymos could provide a great platform for a wide variety of research endeavors because it’s actually a complex two body system with a moon – and they orbit each other. The larger body is roughly 800 meters across, while the smaller one is about 150 meters wide.

Didymos with its Moon
Didymos with its Moon. Credit: ESA

So the smaller body is some 15 times bigger than the Russian meteor and 3 times the size of Asteroid 2012 DA14 which flew just 27,700 km (17,200 mi) above Earth’s surface on Feb. 15, 2013.

The low cost AIDA mission would be comprised of two spacecraft – a mother ship and a collider. Two ships for two targets.

The US collider is named the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART and would smash into the smaller body at about 6.25 km per second. The impact should change the pace at which the objects spin around each other.

ESA’s mothership is named Asteroid Impact Monitor, or AIM, and would carry out a detailed science survey of Didymos both before and after the violent collision.

“The project has value in many areas,” says Andy Cheng, AIDA lead at Johns Hopkins’ Applied Physics Laboratory, “from applied science and exploration to asteroid resource utilisation.” Cheng was a key member of NASA’s NEAR mission that first orbited and later landed on the near Earth Asteroid named Eros back in 2001.

Recall that back in 2005, NASA’s Deep Impact mission successfully lobbed a projectile into Comet Tempel 1 that unleashed a fiery explosion and spewing out vast quantities of material from the comet’s interior, including water and organics.

NASA’s Deep Impact images Comet Tempel 1 alive with light after colliding with the impactor spacecraft on July 4, 2005.  ESA and NASA are now proposing the AIDA mission to smash into Asteroid Didymos.  CREDIT: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UMD
NASA’s Deep Impact images Comet Tempel 1 alive with light after colliding with the impactor spacecraft on July 4, 2005. ESA and NASA are now proposing the AIDA mission to smash into Asteroid Didymos. CREDIT: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UMD

ESA has invited researchers to submit AIDA experiment proposals on a range of ideas including anything that deals with hypervelocity impacts, planetary science, planetary defense, human exploration or innovation in spacecraft operations. The deadline is 15 March.

“It is an exciting opportunity to do world-leading research of all kinds on a problem that is out of this world,” says Stephan Ulamec from the DLR German Aerospace Center. “And it helps us learn how to work together in international missions tackling the asteroid impact hazard.”

The Russian meteor exploded without warning in mid air with a force of nearly 500 kilotons of TNT, the equivalent of about 20–30 times the atomic bombs detonated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Over 1200 people were injured in Russia’s Chelyabinsk region and some 4000 buildings were damaged at a cost exceeding tens of millions of dollars. A ground impact would have decimated cities like New York, Moscow or Beijing with millions likely killed.

ESA’s AIDA mission concept and NASA’s approved Osiris-REx asteroid sample return mission will begin the path to bolster our basic knowledge about asteroids and hopefully inform us on asteroid deflection and Planetary Defense strategies.

Ken Kremer

Near-Earth asteroid Eros imaged from NASA’s orbiting NEAR spacecraft. Credit: NASA
Near-Earth asteroid Eros imaged from NASA’s orbiting NEAR spacecraft. Credit: NASA