Mars at Closest Earth Approach Over SpaceX Recovered Falcon 9 at Sea – Photo

Mars Close Approach over recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 atop droneship at sea on June 1, 2016 as seen from Jetty Park Pier in Port Canaveral, FL.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Mars Close Approach over recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 atop droneship at sea on June 1, 2016 as seen from Jetty Park Pier in Port Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

PORT CANAVERAL, FL – As you may have heard its Mars opposition season. What you may not have heard is that Mars made its closest Earth approach high in the Sunshine states nighttime skies coincidentally at the same time as a sea landed SpaceX Falcon 9 was visible just offshore floating on the horizon below.

Rather miraculously this regular natural occurrence of the dance of the planets Earth and Mars making a close embrace as they orbit around our Sun, was taking place simultaneously with a most unnatural event – namely the return of a used SpaceX Falcon 9 landed on a platform at sea that was briefly hugging the Florida coastline.

And better yet you can see them celebrating this first-of-its-kind celestial event together in the photo above of ‘Mars Close Approach over Falcon’ – captured by this author around 11 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, June 1 from the rock wall along Jetty Park Pier in Port Canaveral, Fl.

By sheer coincidence, the Red Planet was making its closest approach to Earth of this orbital cycle just as the most recently launched and recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage booster was arriving just offshore of Cocoa Beach and the Florida Space Coast earlier this week.

As luck would have it, when I ventured out to watch the boosters hoped for nighttime arrival from Jetty Park Pier in Port Canaveral on Wednesday, June 1, I noticed that Mars and the floating Falcon 9 were lined up almost perfectly.

Mars is visible at the head of the large constellation Scorpius.

The Falcon 9 was standing atop the droneship upon which it had landed on May 27 while it was stationed approximately 420 miles (680 kilometers) off shore and east of Cape Canaveral, Florida, surrounded by the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 began its rapid journey to space and back roaring to life at 5:39 p.m. EDT last Friday, May 27, from Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, ascending into sky blue sunshine state skies.

The Falcon 9 was carrying the Thaicom-8 telecommunications satellite to orbit.

On Wednesday night, June 1, Mars was high in the southern night sky, shining brightly almost directly over the spent Falcon 9 booster sailing some 3 miles (5 km) offshore of Cocoa Beach.

Thankfully the weather gods even cooperated by delivering crystal clear nighttime skies.

So with Mars at Opposition and Falcon 9 in view and while awaiting the droneship bringing the booster into Port Canaveral I took some exposure shots of this first totally unique opportunity.

Mars Close Approach took place on May 30, 2016. That is the point in Mars’ orbit when it comes closest to Earth.

The Red Planet was only 46.8 million miles (75.3 million kilometers) from Earth.

“Mars reaches its highest point around midnight — about 35 degrees above the southern horizon, or one third of the distance between the horizon and overhead,” according to a NASA description and the graphic shown below.

 Mars closest approach to Earth this cycle is May 30, 2016.  That is the point in Mars' orbit when it comes closest to Earth. Mars will be at a distance of 46.8 million miles (75.3 million kilometers).  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Mars closest approach to Earth this cycle is May 30, 2016. That is the point in Mars’ orbit when it comes closest to Earth. Mars will be at a distance of 46.8 million miles (75.3 million kilometers). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Mars is currently visible for much of the night.

Mars oppositions happen about every 26 months when Mars and the sun are on directly opposite sides of Earth.

The 156 foot tall Falcon 9 booster had landed atop the specially designed SpaceX ‘droneship’ named “Of Course I Still Love You” or “OCISLY” less than 9 minutes after the May 27 blastoff.

Incredible sight of pleasure craft zooming past SpaceX Falcon 9 booster from Thaicom-8 launch on May 27, 2016 as it arrives at the mouth of Port Canaveral, FL,  atop droneship platform on June 2, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Incredible sight of pleasure craft zooming past SpaceX Falcon 9 booster from Thaicom-8 launch on May 27, 2016 as it arrives at the mouth of Port Canaveral, FL, atop droneship platform on June 2, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Thaicom-8 mission marked the third time SpaceX nailed a booster landing on an ocean going platform.

But unlike the prior two sea landings, this booster came to rest at noticeable tilt.

This caused SpaceX some headaches and concern it might fall over and be destroyed in transit before reaching land.

So the booster didn’t make it back into port Wednesday night as onlookers had hoped. And SpaceX did not announce a return schedule.

It actually would up station keeping and hugging the shoreline for nearly 2 extra days while workers stabilized the booster.

Tow boat passing in front of the used SpaceX rocket waiting offshore. Credit: Julian Leek
Tow boat passing in front of the used SpaceX rocket waiting offshore. Credit: Julian Leek

The 15 story tall spent first stage was secured with multiple tie downs to the droneships deck.

Up close view of base of recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 atop droneship during arrival on June 2, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Up close view of base of recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 atop droneship during arrival on June 2, 2016 shows ties down securing booster to deck. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

As I witnessed and reported here, the booster finally sailed triumphantly into the mouth of Port Canaveral around lunchtime on Thursday, June 2.

SpaceX Falcon 9 booster moving along the Port Canaveral channel atop droneship platform with cruise ship in background nears ground docking facility on June 2, 2016 following Thaicom-8 launch on May 27, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 booster moving along the Port Canaveral channel atop droneship platform with cruise ship in background nears ground docking facility on June 2, 2016 following Thaicom-8 launch on May 27, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Mars and the recovered Falcon 9 actually tie in rather neatly.

The SpaceX rockets launch and recovery technology are all being developed so they will one day lead to establishing a ‘City on Mars’ – according to the SpaceX’s visionary CEO and founder Elon Musk.

Musk aims to radically slash the cost of launching future rockets by recycling them and using them to launch new payloads for new paying customers.

Musk hopes to launch humans to Mars by the mid-2020s.

And this author is also a well known Mars lover.

NASA’s Opportunity rover discovers a beautiful Martian dust devil moving across the floor of Endeavour crater as wheel tracks show robots path today exploring the steepest ever slopes of the 13 year long mission, in search of water altered minerals at Knudsen Ridge inside Marathon Valley on 1 April 2016. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4332 (1 April 2016) and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
NASA’s Opportunity rover discovers a beautiful Martian dust devil moving across the floor of Endeavour crater as wheel tracks show robots path today exploring the steepest ever slopes of the 13 year long mission, in search of water altered minerals at Knudsen Ridge inside Marathon Valley on 1 April 2016. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4332 (1 April 2016) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Watch for Ken’s continuing on site reports direct from Cape Canaveral and the SpaceX launch pad.

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

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, ULA Atlas rocket, Orbital ATK Cygnus, ISS, Boeing, Space Taxis, Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

June 8/9: “SpaceX, ULA, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Curiosity Cores Hole in Mars at ‘Lubango’ Fracture Zone

Curiosity rover reached out with robotic arm and drilled into ‘Lubango’ outcrop target on Sol 1320, Apr. 23, 2016, in this photo mosaic stitched from navcam  camera raw images and colorized.  Lubango is located in the Stimson unit on the lower slopes of Mount Sharp inside Gale Crater.  MAHLI camera inset image shows drill hole up close on Sol 1321.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Curiosity rover reached out with robotic arm and drilled into ‘Lubango’ outcrop target on Sol 1320, Apr. 23, 2016, in this photo mosaic stitched from navcam camera raw images and colorized. Lubango is located in the Stimson unit on the lower slopes of Mount Sharp inside Gale Crater. MAHLI camera inset image shows drill hole up close on Sol 1321. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover successfully bored a brand new hole in Mars at a tantalizing sandstone outcrop in the ‘Lubango’ fracture zone this past weekend on Sol 1320, Apr. 23, and is now carefully analyzing the shaken and sieved drill tailings for clues to Mars watery past atop the Naukluft Plateau.

“We have a new drill hole on Mars!” reported Ken Herkenhoff, Research Geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center and an MSL science team member, in a mission update.

“All of the activities planned for last weekend have completed successfully.”

“Lubango” counts as the 10th drilling campaign since the one ton rover safely touched down on the Red Planet some 44 months ago inside the targeted Gale Crater landing site, following the nailbiting and never before used ‘sky crane’ maneuver.

After transferring the cored sample to the CHIMRA instrument for sieving it, a portion of the less than 0.15 mm filtered material was successfully delivered this week to the CheMin miniaturized chemistry lab situated in the rovers belly.

CheMin is now analyzing the sample and will return mineralogical data back to scientists on earth for interpretation.

The science team selected Lubango as the robots 10th drill target after determining that it was altered sandstone bedrock and had an unusually high silica content based on analyses carried out using the mast mounted ChemCam laser instrument.

Indeed the rover had already driven away for further scouting and the team then decided to return to Lubango after examining the ChemCam results. They determined the ChemCam and other data observation were encouraging enough – regarding how best to sample both altered and unaltered Stimson bedrock – to change course and drive backwards.

Lubango sits along a fracture in an area that the team dubs the Stimson formation, which is located on the lower slopes of humongous Mount Sharp inside Gale Crater.

This mid-afternoon, 360-degree panorama was acquired by the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover on April 4, 2016, as part of long-term campaign to document the context and details of the geology and landforms along Curiosity's traverse since landing in August 2012.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
This mid-afternoon, 360-degree panorama was acquired by the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover on April 4, 2016, as part of long-term campaign to document the context and details of the geology and landforms along Curiosity’s traverse since landing in August 2012. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Since early March, the rover has been traversing along a rugged region dubbed the Naukluft Plateau.

“The team decided to drill near this fracture to better understand both the altered and unaltered Stimson bedrock,” noted Herkenhoff.

See our photo mosaic above showing the geologically exciting terrain surrounding Curiosity with its outstretched 7-foot-long (2-meter-long) robotic arm after completing the Lubango drill campaign on Sol 1320. The mosaic was created by the imaging team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo.

Its again abundantly clear from the images that beneath the rusty veneer of the Red Planet lies a greyish interior preserving the secrets of Mars ancient climate history.

Curiosity rover views ‘Lubango’ drill target up close in this MAHLI camera image taken on Sol 1321, Apr. 24, 2016, processed to enhance details. Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Curiosity rover views ‘Lubango’ drill target up close in this MAHLI camera image taken on Sol 1321, Apr. 24, 2016, processed to enhance details. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The team then commanded Curiosity to dump the unsieved portion of the sample onto the ground and examine the leftover drill tailing residues with the Mastcam, Navcam, MAHLI multispectral characterization cameras and the APXS spectrometer. ChemCam is also being used to fire laser shots in the wall of the drill hole to make additional chemical measurements.

To complement the data from Lubango, scientists are now looking around the area for a suitable target of unaltered Stimson bedrock as the 11th drill target.

“The color information provided by Mastcam is really helpful in distinguishing altered versus unaltered bedrock,” explained MSL science team member Lauren Edgar, Research Geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center, in a mission update.

The ChemCam laser has already shot at the spot dubbed “Oshikati,” a potential target for the next drilling campaign.

“On Sunday we will drive to our next drilling location, which is on a nearby patch of normal-looking Stimson sandstone,” wrote Ryan Anderson, planetary scientist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center and a member of the ChemCam team on MSL in today’s (Apr. 28) mission update.

As time permits, the Navcam imager is also being used to search for dust devils.

As I reported here, Opportunity recently detected a beautiful looking dust devil on the floor of Endeavour crater on April 1. Dust devil detections by the NASA rovers are relatively rare.

Curiosity has been driving to the edge of the Naukluft Plateau to reach the interesting fracture zone seen in orbital data gathered from NASA’s Mars orbiter spacecraft.

Curiosity images Naukluft Plateau in this photo mosaic stitched from Mastcam camera raw images taken on Sol1296.  Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Curiosity images Naukluft Plateau in this photo mosaic stitched from Mastcam camera raw images taken on Sol1296. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The rover is almost finished crossing the Naukluft Plateau which is “the most rugged and difficult-to-navigate terrain encountered during the mission’s 44 months on Mars,” says NASA.

Prior to climbing onto the Naukluft Plateau the rover spent several weeks investigating sand dunes including the two story tall Namib dune.

Curiosity explores Red Planet paradise at Namib Dune during Christmas 2015 - backdropped by Mount Sharp.  Curiosity took first ever self-portrait with Mastcam color camera after arriving at the lee face of Namib Dune.  This photo mosaic shows a portion of the full self portrait and is stitched from Mastcam color camera raw images taken on Sol 1197, Dec. 19, 2015.  Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Curiosity explores Red Planet paradise at Namib Dune during Christmas 2015 – backdropped by Mount Sharp. Curiosity took first ever self-portrait with Mastcam color camera after arriving at the lee face of Namib Dune. This photo mosaic shows a portion of the full self portrait and is stitched from Mastcam color camera raw images taken on Sol 1197, Dec. 19, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

As of today, Sol 1325, April 28, 2016, Curiosity has driven over 7.9 miles (12.7 kilometers) since its August 2012 landing, and taken over 320,100 amazing images.

Spectacular Mastcam camera view of Gale Crater rim from Curiosity on Sol 1302 enhanced to bring out detail.   Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Spectacular Mastcam camera view of Gale Crater rim from Curiosity on Sol 1302 enhanced to bring out detail. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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

Ken Kremer

SpaceX Announces Plan to Launch Private Dragon Mission to Mars in 2018

Artists concept for sending SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft to land propulsively on Mars as early as 2018.  Credit: SpaceX
Artists concept for sending SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft to land propulsively on Mars as early as 2018. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX announced plans today, April 27, for the first ever private mission to Mars which involves sending an uncrewed version of the firms Dragon spacecraft to accomplish a propulsive soft landing – and to launch it as soon as 2018 including certain technical assistance from NASA.

Under a newly signed space act agreement with NASA, the agency will provide technical support to SpaceX with respect to Mars landing technologies for the new spacecraft known as a ‘Red Dragon’ and possibly also for science activities.

“SpaceX is planning to send Dragons to Mars as early as 2018,” the company posted in a brief announcement today on Facebook and other social media about the history making endeavor.

The 2018 commercial Mars mission involves launching the ‘Red Dragon’ – also known as Dragon 2 – on the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket from Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It’s a prelude to eventual human missions.

The Red Dragon initiative is a commercial endeavor that’s privately funded by SpaceX and does not include any funding from NASA. The agreement with NASA specifically states there is “no-exchange-of-funds.”

As of today, the identity and scope of any potential science payload is undefined and yet to be determined.

Hopefully it will include a diverse suite of exciting research instruments from NASA, or other entities, such as high powered cameras and spectrometers characterizing the Martian surface, atmosphere and environment.

SpaceX CEO and billionaire founder Elon Musk has previously stated his space exploration goals involve helping to create a Mars colony which would ultimately lead to establishing a human ‘City on Mars.’

Musk is also moving full speed ahead with his goal of radically slashing the cost of access to space by recovering a pair of SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage boosters via successful upright propulsive landings on land and at sea – earlier this month and in Dec. 2015.

Artists concept for sending SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft to land propulsively on Mars as early as 2018.  Credit: SpaceX
Artists concept for sending uncrewed SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft to land propulsively on Mars as early as 2018. Credit: SpaceX

The 2018 liftoff campaign marks a significant step towards fulfilling Musk’s Red Planet vision. But we’ll have to wait another 5 months for concrete details.

“Red Dragon missions to Mars will also help inform the overall Mars colonization architecture that SpaceX will reveal later this year,” SpaceX noted.

Musk plans to reveal the details of the Mars colonization architecture later this year at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) being held in Guadalajara, Mexico from September 26 to 30, 2016.

Landing on Mars is not easy. To date only NASA has successfully soft landed probes on Mars that returned significant volumes of useful science data.

In the meantime a few details about the SpaceX Red Dragon have emerged.

The main goal is to propulsively land something 5-10 times the size of anything previously landed before.

“These missions will help demonstrate the technologies needed to land large payloads propulsively on Mars,” SpaceX further posted.

NASA’s 1 ton Curiosity rover is the heaviest spaceship to touchdown on the Red Planet to date.

Artists concept for sending SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft to Mars as early as 2018.  Credit: SpaceX
Artists concept for sending SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft to Mars as early as 2018. Credit: SpaceX

As part of NASA’s agency wide goal to send American astronauts on a human ‘Journey to Mars’ in the 2030s, NASA will work with SpaceX on some aspects of the Red Dragon initiative to further the agency’s efforts.

According to an amended space act agreement signed yesterday jointly by NASA and SpaceX officials – that originally dates back to November 2014 – this mainly involves technical support from NASA and exchanging entry, descent and landing (EDL) technology, deep space communications, telemetry and navigation support, hardware advice, and interplanetary mission and planetary protection advice and consultation.

“We’re particularly excited about an upcoming SpaceX project that would build upon a current “no-exchange-of-funds” agreement we have with the company,” NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman wrote in a NASA blog post today.

“In exchange for Martian entry, descent, and landing data from SpaceX, NASA will offer technical support for the firm’s plan to attempt to land an uncrewed Dragon 2 spacecraft on Mars.”

“This collaboration could provide valuable entry, descent and landing data to NASA for our journey to Mars, while providing support to American industry,” NASA noted in a statement.

The amended agreement with NASA also makes mention of sharing “Mars Science Data.”

As of today, the identity, scope and weight of any potential science payload is undefined and yet to be determined.

Perhaps it could involve a suite of science instruments from NASA, or other entities, such as cameras and spectrometers characterizing various aspects of the Martian environment.

In the case of NASA, the joint agreement states that data collected with NASA assets is to be released within a period not to exceed 6 months and published where practical in scientific journals.

The Red Dragon envisioned for blastoff to the Red Planet as soon as 2018 would launch with no crew on board on a critical path finding test flight that would eventually pave the way for sending humans to Mars – and elsewhere in the solar system.

“Red Dragon Mars mission is the first test flight,” said Musk.

“Dragon 2 is designed to be able to land anywhere in the solar system.”

However, the Dragon 2 alone is far too small for a round trip mission to Mars – lasting some three years or more.

“But wouldn’t recommend transporting astronauts beyond Earth-moon region,” tweeted Musk.

“Wouldn’t be fun for longer journeys. Internal volume ~size of SUV.”

Furthermore, for crewed missions it would also have to be supplemented with additional modules for habitation, propulsion, cargo, science, communications and more. Think ‘The Martian’ movie to get a realistic idea of the complexity and time involved.

Red Dragon’s blastoff from KSC pad 39A is slated to take place during the Mars launch window opening during April and May 2018.

The inaugural liftoff of the Falcon Heavy is currently scheduled for late 2016 after several years postponement.

If all goes well, Red Dragon could travel to Mars at roughly the same time as NASA’s next Mission to Mars – namely the InSight science lander, which will study the planets deep interior with a package of seismometer and heat flow instruments.

InSight’s launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V is targeting a launch window that begins May 5, 2018, with a Mars landing scheduled for Nov. 26, 2018. Liftoff was delayed from this year due to a flaw in the French-built seismometer.

SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft launches to Mars on SpaceX Falcon Heavy as soon as 2018 in this artists comcept.  Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft launches to Mars on SpaceX Falcon Heavy as soon as 2018 in this artists comcept. Credit: SpaceX

Whoever wants to land on Mars also has to factor in the relevant International treaties regarding ‘Planetary Protection’ requirements.

Wherever the possibility for life exists, the worlds space agency’s who are treaty signatories, including NASA, are bound to adhere to protocols limiting contamination by life forms from Earth.

SpaceX intends to take planetary protection seriously. Under the joint agreement, SpaceX is working with relevant NASA officials to ensure proper planetary protection procedures are followed. One of the areas of collaboration with NASA is for them to advise SpaceX in the development a Planetary Protection Plan (PPP) and assist with the implementation of a PPP including identifying existing software/tools.

Red Dragon is derived from the SpaceX crew Dragon vehicle currently being developed under contract for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) to transport American astronauts back and forth to low Earth orbit and the International Space Station (ISS).

SpaceX and Boeing were awarded commercial crew contracts from NASA back in September 2014.

Both firms hope to launch unmanned and manned test flights of their SpaceX Crew Dragon and Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft to the ISS starting sometime in 2017.

The crew Dragon is also an advanced descendent of the original unmanned cargo Dragon that has ferried tons of science experiments and essential supplies to the ISS since 2012.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo ship are set to liftoff on a resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) from launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, Florida on Jan. 6, 2015. File photo.  Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo ship are set to liftoff on a resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) from launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, Florida on Jan. 6, 2015. File photo. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

To enable propulsive landings, SpaceX recently conducted hover tests using a Dragon 2 equipped with eight side-mounted SuperDraco engines at their development testing facility in McGregor, TX.

These are “Key for Mars landing,” SpaceX wrote.

“We are closer than ever before to sending American astronauts to Mars than anyone, anywhere, at any time has ever been,” Newman states.

SpaceX Dragon 2 crew vehicle, powered by eight SuperDraco engines, conducts propulsive hover test at the company’s rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas.  Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Dragon 2 crew vehicle, powered by eight SuperDraco engines, conducts propulsive hover test at the company’s rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas. Credit: SpaceX

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

Ken Kremer

Opportunity Discovers Dust Devil, Explores Steepest Slopes on Mars

NASA’s Opportunity rover discovers a beautiful Martian dust devil moving across the floor of Endeavour crater as wheel tracks show robots path today exploring the steepest ever slopes of the 13 year long mission, in search of water altered minerals at Knudsen Ridge inside Marathon Valley on 1 April 2016. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4332 (1 April 2016) and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
NASA’s Opportunity rover discovers a beautiful Martian dust devil moving across the floor of Endeavour crater as wheel tracks show robots path today exploring the steepest ever slopes of the 13 year long mission, in search of water altered minerals at Knudsen Ridge inside Marathon Valley on 1 April 2016. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from raw images taken on Sol 4332 (1 April 2016) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

A “beautiful dust devil” was just discovered today, April 1, on the Red Planet by NASA’s long lived Opportunity rover as she is simultaneously exploring water altered rock outcrops at the steepest slopes ever targeted during her 13 year long expedition across the Martian surface. Opportunity is searching for minerals formed in ancient flows of water that will provide critical insight into establishing whether life ever existed on the fourth rock from the sun.

“Yes a beautiful dust devil on the floor of Endeavour Crater,” Ray Arvidson, Opportunity Deputy Principal Investigator of Washington University in St. Louis, confirmed to Universe Today. Spied from where “Opportunity is located on the southwest part of Knudsen Ridge” in Marathon Valley.

The new dust devil – a mini tornado like feature – is seen scooting across the ever fascinating Martian landscape in our new photo mosaic illustrating the steep walled terrain inside Marathon Valley and overlooking the crater floor as Opportunity makes wheel tracks at the current worksite on a crest at Knudsen Ridge. The colorized navcam camera mosaic combines raw images taken today on Sol 4332 (1 April 2016) and stitched by the imaging team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo.

“The dust devils have been kind to this rover,” Jim Green, Director of NASA Planetary Sciences at NASA HQ, said in an exclusive interview with Universe Today. They are associated with prior periods of solar array cleansing power boosts that contributed decisively to her longevity.

“Oppy’s best friend is on its way!”

Spotting dust devils has been relatively rare for Opportunity since landing on Mars on Jan. 24, 2004.

“There are 7 candidates, 6 of which are likely or certain,” Mark Lemmon, rover science team member from Texas A & M University, told Universe Today. “Most were seen in, on the rim of, or adjacent to Endeavour.”

Starting in late January, scientists commanded the golf cart sized Opportunity to drive up the steepest slopes ever attempted by any Mars rover in order to reach rock outcrops where she can conduct breakthrough science investigations on smectite (phyllosilicate) clay mineral bearing rocks yielding clues to Mars watery past.

“We are beginning an imaging and contact science campaign in an area where CRISM spectra show evidence for deep absorptions associated with Fe [Iron], Mg [Magnesium] smectites,” Arvidson explained.

A shadow and tracks of NASA's Mars rover Opportunity appear in this March 22, 2016, image, which has been rotated 13.5 degrees to adjust for the tilt of the rover. The hillside descends to the left into "Marathon Valley." The floor of Endeavour Crater is seen beneath the underside of a solar panel.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
A shadow and tracks of NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity appear in this March 22, 2016, image, which has been rotated 13.5 degrees to adjust for the tilt of the rover. The hillside descends to the left into “Marathon Valley.” The floor of Endeavour Crater is seen beneath the underside of a solar panel. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This is especially exciting to researchers because the phyllosilicate clay mineral rocks formed under water wet, non-acidic conditions that are more conducive to the formation of Martian life forms – billions of years ago when the planet was far warmer and wetter.

“We have been in the smectite [phyllosilicate clay mineral] zone for months, ever since we entered Marathon Valley.”

The smectites were discovered via extensive, specially targeted Mars orbital measurements gathered by the CRISM (Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars) spectrometer on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) – accomplished earlier at the direction of Arvidson.

So the ancient, weathered slopes around Marathon Valley became a top priority science destination after they were found to hold a motherlode of ‘smectite’ clay minerals based on the CRISM data.

“Marathon Valley is unlike anything we have ever seen. Looks like a mining zone!”

At this moment, the rover is driving to an alternative rock outcrop located on the southwest area of the Knudsen Ridge hilltops after trying three times to get within reach of the clay minerals by extending her instrument laden robotic arm.

NASA’s Opportunity rover images current worksite at Knudsen Ridge on Sol 4228 where the robot is grinding into rock targets inside Marathon Valley during 12th Anniversary of touchdown on Mars in Jan. 2016.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA’s Opportunity rover images current worksite at Knudsen Ridge on Sol 4228 where the robot is grinding into rock targets inside Marathon Valley during 12th Anniversary of touchdown on Mars in Jan. 2016. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, the rover kept slipping on the steep walled slopes – tilted as much as 32 degrees – while repeatedly attempting close approaches to the intended target. Ultimately she came within 3 inches of the surface science target ‘Pvt. Joseph Whitehouse’ – named after a member of the Corps of Discovery.

In fact despite rotating her wheels enough to push uphill about 66 feet (20 meters) if there had been no slippage, engineers discerned from telemetry that slippage was so great that “the vehicle progressed only about 3.5 inches (9 centimeters). This was the third attempt to reach the target and came up a few inches short,” said NASA.

“The rover team reached a tough decision to skip that target and move on.”

So they backed Opportunity downhill about 27 feet (8.2 meters), then drove about 200 feet (about 60 meters) generally southwestward and uphill, toward the next target area.

NASA officials noted that “the previous record for the steepest slope ever driven by any Mars rover was accomplished while Opportunity was approaching “Burns Cliff” about nine months after the mission’s January 2004 landing on Mars.”

Marathon Valley measures about 300 yards or meters long. It cuts downhill through the west rim of Endeavour crater from west to east – the same direction in which Opportunity is currently driving downhill from a mountain summit area atop the crater rim. See our route map below showing the context of the rovers over dozen year long traverse spanning more than the 26 mile distance of a Marathon runners race.

Endeavour crater spans some 22 kilometers (14 miles) in diameter. Opportunity has been exploring Endeavour since arriving at the humongous crater in 2011.

NASA’s Opportunity rover peers outwards across to the vast expense of Endeavour Crater from current location descending along steep walled Marathon Valley in early November 2015. Marathon Valley holds significant deposits of water altered clay minerals holding clues to the planets watery past.  Shadow of Pancam Mast assembly and robots deck visible at right. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 4181 (Oct. 29, 2015) and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
NASA’s Opportunity rover peers outwards across to the vast expense of Endeavour Crater from current location descending along steep walled Marathon Valley in early November 2015. Marathon Valley holds significant deposits of water altered clay minerals holding clues to the planets watery past. Shadow of Pancam Mast assembly and robots deck visible at right. This navcam camera photo mosaic was assembled from images taken on Sol 4181 (Oct. 29, 2015) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Why are the dust devils a big deal?

Offering more than just a pretty view, the dust devils actually have been associated with springtime Martian winds that clear away the dust obscuring the robots life giving solar panels.

“Opportunity is largely in winter mode sitting on a hill side getting maximum power. But it is in a better power status than in many past winters,” Jim Green, Director of NASA Planetary Sciences at NASA HQ, told Universe Today exclusively.

“I think I know the reason. As one looks across the vistas of Mars in this mosaic Oppys best friend is on its way.”

“The dust devils have been kind to this rover. Even I have a smile on my face when I see what’s coming.”

12 Year Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2016. This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during almost 12 years and more than a marathon runners distance on Mars for over 4332 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 - to current location at the western rim of Endeavour Crater and descending into Marathon Valley. Rover surpassed Marathon distance on Sol 3968 and marked 11th Martian anniversary on Sol 3911. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone - and is currently searching for more at Marathon Valley.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
12 Year Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2016. This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during almost 12 years and more than a marathon runners distance on Mars for over 4332 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 – to current location at the western rim of Endeavour Crater and descending into Marathon Valley. Rover surpassed Marathon distance on Sol 3968 and marked 11th Martian anniversary on Sol 3911. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone – and is currently searching for more at Marathon Valley. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

As of today, Sol 4332, Apr. 1, 2016, Opportunity has taken over 209,200 images and traversed over 26.53 miles (42.69 kilometers) – more than a marathon.

The power output from solar array energy production has climbed to 576 watt-hours, now just past the depths of southern hemisphere Martian winter.

Meanwhile Opportunity’s younger sister rover Curiosity traverses and drills into the basal layers at the base of Mount Sharp.

This March 21, 2016, image from the navigation camera on NASA's Mars rover Opportunity shows streaks of dust or sand on the vehicle's rear solar panel after a series of drives during which the rover was pointed steeply uphill. The tilt and jostling of the drives affected material on the rover deck.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This March 21, 2016, image from the navigation camera on NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity shows streaks of dust or sand on the vehicle’s rear solar panel after a series of drives during which the rover was pointed steeply uphill. The tilt and jostling of the drives affected material on the rover deck. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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

Ken Kremer

………….

Learn more about NASA Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, ISS, Orbital ATK, ULA, SpaceX, Boeing, Space Taxis, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Apr 9/10: “NASA and the Road to Mars Human Spaceflight programs” and “Curiosity explores Mars” at NEAF (NorthEast Astronomy and Space Forum), 9 AM to 5 PM, Suffern, NY, Rockland Community College and Rockland Astronomy Club – http://rocklandastronomy.com/neaf.html

Apr 12: Hosting Dr. Jim Green, NASA, Director Planetary Science, for a Planetary sciences talk about “Ceres, Pluto and Planet X” at Princeton University; 7:30 PM, Amateur Astronomers Assoc of Princeton, Peyton Hall, Princeton, NJ – http://www.princetonastronomy.org/

Apr 17: “NASA and the Road to Mars Human Spaceflight programs”- 1:30 PM at Washington Crossing State Park, Nature Center, Titusville, NJ – http://www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/parks/washcros.html

A shadow and tracks of NASA's Mars rover Opportunity appear in this March 22, 2016, colorized hazcam camera image, which has been rotated 13.5 degrees to adjust for the tilt of the rover. The hillside descends to the left into "Marathon Valley." The floor of Endeavour Crater is seen beneath the underside of a solar panel.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A shadow and tracks of NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity appear in this March 22, 2016, colorized hazcam camera image, which has been rotated 13.5 degrees to adjust for the tilt of the rover. The hillside descends to the left into “Marathon Valley.” The floor of Endeavour Crater is seen beneath the underside of a solar panel. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Composite hazcam camera image (left) shows the robotic arm in motion as NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity places the tool turret on the target named “Private John Potts” on Sol 4234 to brush away obscuring dust. Rover is actively working on the southern side of “Marathon Valley” which slices through western rim of Endeavour Crater. On Sol 4259 (Jan. 16, 2016), Opportunity completed grinds with the Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT) to exposure rock interior for elemental analysis, as seen in mosaic (right) of four up close images taken by Microscopic Imager (MI). Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Composite hazcam camera image (left) shows the robotic arm in motion as NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity places the tool turret on the target named “Private John Potts” on Sol 4234 to brush away obscuring dust. Rover is actively working on the southern side of “Marathon Valley” which slices through western rim of Endeavour Crater. On Sol 4259 (Jan. 16, 2016), Opportunity completed grinds with the Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT) to exposure rock interior for elemental analysis, as seen in mosaic (right) of four up close images taken by Microscopic Imager (MI). Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Bold Euro-Russian Expedition Blasts Free of Earth En Route to Mars in Search of Life’s Indicators

Artists concept of ExoMars spacecraft separation from Breeze M fourth stage. Credit: ESA
Artists concept of ExoMars spacecraft separation from Breeze M fourth stage after launch atop Proton rocket on March 14, 2016. Credit: ESA

The cooperative Euro-Russian ExoMars 2016 expedition is now en route to the Red Planet after successfully firing its upper stage booster one final time on Monday evening, March 15, to blast free of the Earth’s gravitational tug and begin a 500 million kilometer interplanetary journey in a bold search of indications of life emanating from potential Martian microbes.

The vehicle is in “good health” with the solar panels unfurled, generating power and on course for the 500 Million kilometer (300 million mile) journey to Mars.

“Acquisition of signal confirmed. We have a mission to Mars!” announced Mission Control from the European Space Agency.

The joint European/Russian ExoMars spacecraft successfully blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan atop a Russian Proton-M rocket at 5:31:42 a.m. EDT (0931:42 GMT), Monday, March 14, with the goal of searching for possible signatures of life in the form of trace amounts of atmospheric methane on the Red Planet.

Video caption: Blastoff of Russian Proton rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome carrying ExoMars 2016 mission on March 14, 2016. Credit: Roscosmos

The first three stages of the 191-foot-tall (58-meter) Russian-built rocket fired as scheduled over the first ten minutes and lofted the 9,550-pound (4,332-kilogram) ExoMars to orbit.

Three more firings from the Breeze-M fourth stage quickly raised the probe into progressively higher temporary parking orbits around Earth.

But the science and engineering teams from the European Space Agency (ESA) and Roscosmos had to keep their fingers crossed and endure an agonizingly long wait of more than 10 hours before the fourth and final ignition of the Proton’s Breeze-M upper stage required to break the bonds of Earth.

The do or die last Breeze-M upper stage burn with ExoMars still attached was finally fired exactly as planned.

The probe was released at last from the Breeze at 20:13 GMT.

However, it took another long hour to corroborate the missions true success until the first acquisition of signal (AOS) from the spacecraft was received at ESA’s control centre in Darmstadt, Germany via the Malindi ground tracking station in Africa at 5:21:29 p.m. EST (21:29 GMT), confirming a fully successful launch with the spacecraft in good health.

It was propelled outwards to begin a seven-month-long journey to the Red Planet to the great relief of everyone involved from ESA, Roscosmos and other nations participating. An upper stage failure caused the total loss of Russia’s prior mission to Mars; Phobos-Grunt.

“Only the process of collaboration produces the best technical solutions for great research results. Roscosmos and ESA are confident of the mission’s success,” said Igor Komarov, General Director of the Roscosmos State Space Corporation, in a statement.

The ExoMars 2016 mission is comprised of a joined pair of European-built spacecraft consisting of the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) plus the Schiaparelli entry, descent and landing demonstrator module, built and funded by ESA.

“It’s been a long journey getting the first ExoMars mission to the launch pad, but thanks to the hard work and dedication of our international teams, a new era of Mars exploration is now within our reach,” says Johann-Dietrich Woerner, ESA’s Director General.

“I am grateful to our Russian partner, who have given this mission the best possible start today. Now we will explore Mars together.”

ExoMars 2016 Mission to the Red Planet.  It consists of two spacecraft -  the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM) which will land.  Credit: ESA
ExoMars 2016 Mission to the Red Planet. It consists of two spacecraft – the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM) which will land. Credit: ESA

The cooperative mission includes significant participation from the Russian space agency Roscosmos who provided the Proton-M launcher, part of the science instrument package, the surface platform and ground station support.

The Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and Schiaparelli lander are speeding towards Mars joined together, on a collision course for the Red Planet. They will separate on October 16, 2016 at distance of 900,000 km from the planet, three days before arriving on October 19, 2016.
TGO will fire thrusters to alter course and enter an initial four-day elliptical orbit around the fourth planet from the sun ranging from 300 km at its perigee to 96 000 km at its apogee, or furthest point.

Over the next year, engineers will command TGO to fire thrusters and conduct a complex series of ‘aerobraking’ manoeuvres that will gradually lower the spacecraft to circular 400 km (250 mi) orbit above the surface.

The science mission to analyse for rare gases, including methane, in the thin Martian atmosphere at the nominal orbit is expected to begin in December 2017.

ExoMars 2016: Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli. Credit:  ESA/ATG medialab
ExoMars 2016: Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli. Credit:
ESA/ATG medialab

As TGO enters orbit, the Schiaparelli lander will smash into the atmosphere and begin a harrowing six minute descent to the surface.

The main purpose of Schiaparelli is to demonstrate key entry, descent, and landing technologies for the follow on 2nd ExoMars mission in 2018 that will land the first European rover on the Red Planet.

The battery powered lander is expected to operate for perhaps four and up to eight days until the battery is depleted.

It will conduct a number of environmental science studies such as “obtaining the first measurements of electric fields on the surface of Mars that, combined with measurements of the concentration of atmospheric dust, will provide new insights into the role of electric forces on dust lifting – the trigger for dust storms,” according to ESA.

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

Ken Kremer

ExoMars Spacecraft Launches to Red Planet Searching for Signs of Life

ExoMars 2016 lifted off on a Proton-M rocket from Baikonur, Kazakhstan at 09:31 GMT on 14 March 2016.   Copyright ESA–Stephane Corvaja, 2016
ExoMars 2016 lifted off on a Proton-M rocket from Baikonur, Kazakhstan at 09:31 GMT on 14 March 2016. Copyright ESA–Stephane Corvaja, 2016

The joint European/Russian ExoMars spacecraft successfully launched early this morning from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan atop a Proton-M rocket at 5:31:42 a.m. EDT (0931:42 GMT), Monday, March 14, with the goal of searching for signs of life on the Red Planet.

After settling into orbit around Mars, it’s instruments will scan for minute signatures of methane gas that could possibly be an indication of life or of nonbiologic geologic processes ongoing today.

The spacecraft is currently circling in a temporary and preliminary parking orbit around Earth following liftoff of the 191-foot-tall (58-meter) Russian-built rocket under overcast skies – awaiting a critical final engine burn placing the probe on an interplanetary trajectory to Mars.

The 9,550-pound (4,332-kilogram) ExoMars 2016 spacecraft continued soaring to orbit after nominal firings of the Proton’s second and third stages and jettisoning of the payload fairing halves protecting the vehicle during ascent through Earth’s atmosphere.

A total of four more burns from the Breeze-M upper stage are required to boost ExoMars higher and propel it outwards on its seven-month-long journey to the Red Planet.

So the excitement and nail biting is not over yet and continues to this moment. The final successful outcome of today’s mission cannot be declared until more than 10 hours after liftoff – after the last firing of the Breeze-M upper stage sets the probe on course for Mars and escaping the tug of Earth’s gravity.

ExoMars 2016 lifted off on a Proton-M rocket from Baikonur, Kazakhstan at 09:31 GMT on 14 March 2016.   Copyright ESA–Stephane Corvaja, 2016
ExoMars 2016 lifted off on a Proton-M rocket from Baikonur, Kazakhstan at 09:31 GMT on 14 March 2016. Copyright ESA–Stephane Corvaja, 2016

The first three Breeze-M fourth stage burns have now been completed as of about 9:40 am EST, according to ESA mission control on Darmstadt, Germany.

The fourth and final ignition of the Breeze-M upper stage and spacecraft separation is slated for after 3 p.m. EDT today, March 14, 2016.

The first acquisition of signal from the spacecraft is expected later at about 5:21:29 p.m. EST (21:29 GMT).

Artists concept of ExoMars spacecraft separation from Breeze fourth stage. Credit: ESA
Artists concept of ExoMars spacecraft separation from Breeze fourth stage. Credit: ESA

The ExoMars 2016 mission is comprised of a joined pair of European-built spacecraft consisting of the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) plus the Schiaparelli entry, descent and landing demonstrator module, built and funded by the European Space Agency (ESA).

The cooperative mission includes significant participation from the Russian space agency Roscosmos who provided the Proton-M launcher, part of the science instrument package, the surface platform and ground station support.

The launch was carried live courtesy of a European Space Agency (ESA) webcast:

http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Space_Science/ExoMars/Watch_ExoMars_launch

ESA is continuing live streaming of the launch events throughout the day as burns continue and events unfold lead up to the critical final burn of the Breeze-M upper stage

The ExoMars 2016 TGO orbiter is equipped with a payload of four science instruments supplied by European and Russian scientists. It will investigate the source and precisely measure the quantity of the methane and other trace gases, present at levels of one percent or far less.

On Earth methane can be produced by biology, volcanoes, natural gas and hydrothermal activity. TGO will investigate what makes it on Mars and follow up on measurements from NASA’s Curiosity rover and other space based assets and telescopes.

Martian methane has a lifetime of about 400 years, until it is destroyed by solar UV & mixed by atmosphere, says Jorge Vago, ESA ExoMars 2016 principal scientist.

The 2016 lander will carry an international suite of science instruments and test European entry, descent and landing (EDL) technologies for the 2nd ExoMars mission in 2018.

The battery powered lander is expected to operate for perhaps four and up to eight days until the battery is depleted.

The 2018 ExoMars mission will deliver an advanced rover to the Red Planet’s surface.

It is equipped with the first ever deep driller that can collect samples to depths of 2 meters (seven feet) where the environment is shielded from the harsh conditions on the surface – namely the constant bombardment of cosmic radiation and the presence of strong oxidants like perchlorates that can destroy organic molecules.

ExoMars was originally a joint NASA/ESA project.

But thanks to hefty cuts to NASA’s budget by Washington DC politicians, NASA was forced to terminate the agencies involvement after several years of extremely detailed work and withdraw from participation as a full partner in the exciting ExoMars missions.

NASA is still providing the critical MOMA science instrument that will search for organic molecules.

Thereafter Russia agreed to take NASA’s place and provide the much needed funding and rockets for the pair of launches in March 2016 and May 2018.

TGO will also help search for safe landing sites for the ExoMars 2018 lander and serve as the all important data communication relay station sending signals and science from the rover and surface science platform back to Earth.

ExoMars 2016 is Europe’s most advanced mission to Mars and joins Europe’s still operating Mars Express Orbiter (MEX), which arrived back in 2004, as well as a fleet of NASA and Indian probes.

ExoMars 2016: Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli. Credit:  ESA/ATG medialab
ExoMars 2016: Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli. Credit:
ESA/ATG medialab

The Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and Schiaparelli lander arrive at Mars on October 19, 2016.

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

Ken Kremer

Proton rocket and ExoMars 2016 spacecraft stand vertical at the launch pad at the Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan Copyright: ESA - B. Bethge
Proton rocket and ExoMars 2016 spacecraft stand vertical at the launch pad at the Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan
Copyright: ESA – B. Bethge

Countdown Begins for Blastoff of ExoMars 2016 Spacecraft on March 14 – Watch Live

Proton rocket and ExoMars 2016 spacecraft rolled out to launch pad at the Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan Copyright: ESA - B. Bethge
Proton rocket and ExoMars 2016 spacecraft rolled out to launch pad at the Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan
Copyright: ESA – B. Bethge

The countdown has begun for blastoff of the ambitious European/Russian ExoMars 2016 spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on March 14. Its goal is to search for minute signatures of methane gas that could possibly be an indication of life or of nonbiologic geologic processes ongoing today.

Final launch preparations are now in progress. Liftoff of the powerful Russian Proton booster from Baikonur carrying the ExoMars spacecraft is slated for 5:31:42 a.m. EDT (0931:42 GMT), Monday morning, March 14.

You can watch the launch live courtesy of a European Space Agency (ESA) webcast:

http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Space_Science/ExoMars/Watch_ExoMars_launch

The prelaunch play by play begins with live streaming at 4:30 a.m. EDT (08:30 GMT).

The first acquisition of signal from the spacecrft is expected at 21:29 GMT

As launch and post launch events unfold leading to spacecraft separation, ESA plans additional live streaming events at 7:00 a.m. EDT (11:00 GMT) and 5:10 p.m. (21:10 GMT)

Spacecraft separation from the Breeze upper stage is expected at about 10 hours, 41 minutes.

Artists concept of ExoMars spacecraft separation from Breeze fourth stage. Credit: ESA
Artists concept of ExoMars spacecraft separation from Breeze fourth stage. Credit: ESA

The ExoMars 2016 mission is comprised of a pair of European spacecraft named the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Schiaparelli entry, descent and landing demonstration lander, built and funded by the European Space Agency (ESA).

Russian is providing the Proton booster and part of the science instrument package.

“The main objectives of this mission are to search for evidence of methane and other trace atmospheric gases that could be signatures of active biological or geological processes and to test key technologies in preparation for ESA’s contribution to subsequent missions to Mars,” says ESA.

Proton rocket and ExoMars 2016 spacecraft stand vertical at the launch pad at the Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan Copyright: ESA - B. Bethge
Proton rocket and ExoMars 2016 spacecraft stand vertical at the launch pad at the Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan
Copyright: ESA – B. Bethge

ExoMars is Earth’s lone mission to the Red Planet following the two year postponement of NASA’s InSight lander from 2016 to 2018 to allow time to fix a defective French-built seismometer.

ESA reported late today , March 13, that at T-minus 12 hours the Trace Gas Orbiter has been successfully switch on, a telemetry link was established and the spacecrft battery charging has been completed.

The Proton rocket with the encapsulated spacecraft bolted atop were rolled out to the Baikonur launch pad on Friday, March 11 and the launcher was raised into the vertical position.

ESA mission controller then completed a full launch dress rehearsal on Saturday, March 12.

The ExoMars 2016 TGO orbiter is equipped with a payload of four science instruments supplied by European and Russian scientists. It will investigate the source and precisely measure the quantity of the methane and other trace gases.

The ExoMars 2016 spacecraft composite, comprised of the Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli, seen during the encapsulation within the launcher fairing  at the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Launch to Mars is slated for March 14, 2016.  Copyright: ESA - B. Bethge
The ExoMars 2016 spacecraft composite, comprised of the Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli, seen during the encapsulation within the launcher fairing at the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Launch to Mars is slated for March 14, 2016. Copyright: ESA – B. Bethge

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

Ken Kremer

ExoMars 2016 Spacecraft Encapsulated for Red Planet Launch in One Week

The ExoMars 2016 spacecraft composite, comprised of the Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli, seen during the encapsulation within the launcher fairing  at the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Launch to Mars is slated for March 14, 2016.  Copyright: ESA - B. Bethge
The ExoMars 2016 spacecraft composite, comprised of the Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli, seen during the encapsulation within the launcher fairing at the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Launch to Mars is slated for March 14, 2016. Copyright: ESA – B. Bethge

Final launch preparations are now in full swing for the ambitious European/Russian ExoMars 2016 spacecraft which has been encapsulated inside its payload launcher fairing and is slated to blast off for the Red Planet one week from now on March 14, 2016 from Kazakhstan.

On March 2, technicians working at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan completed the complex multiday mating and enclosure operations of the composite ExoMars 2016 spacecraft to the launch vehicle adapter and the Breeze upper stage inside the nose cone.

The ExoMars 2016 mission is comprised of a pair of European spacecraft named the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Schiaparelli lander, built and funded by the European Space Agency (ESA).

“The main objectives of this mission are to search for evidence of methane and other trace atmospheric gases that could be signatures of active biological or geological processes and to test key technologies in preparation for ESA’s contribution to subsequent missions to Mars,” says ESA.

2016’s lone mission to the Red Planet will launch atop a Russian Proton rocket.

The individual orbiter and lander spacecraft were recently mated at Baikonur on February 12.

To prepare for the encapsulation, engineers first tilted the spacecraft horizontally. Then they rolled the first fairing half underneath the spacecraft and Breeze on a track inside the Baikonur cleanroom.

Then they used an overhead crane to carefully lower the second fairing half and maneuver it into place from above to fully encapsulate the precious payload.

Tilting the ExoMars 2016 spacecraft and Breeze upper stage into the horizontal position in preparation of encapsulation within the launcher fairing at the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Launch to Mars is slated for March 14, 2016.  Copyright: ESA - B. Bethge
Tilting the ExoMars 2016 spacecraft and Breeze upper stage into the horizontal position in preparation of encapsulation within the launcher fairing at the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Launch to Mars is slated for March 14, 2016. Copyright: ESA – B. Bethge

The 13.5 foot (4.1-meter) diameter payload fairing holding the ExoMars 2016 spacecraft and Breeze upper stage will next be mated to the Proton rocket and rolled out to the Baikonur launch pad.

The launch window extends until March 25.

The ExoMars 2016 TGO orbiter is equipped with a payload of four science instruments supplied by European and Russian scientists. It will investigate the source and precisely measure the quantity of the methane and other trace gases.

ExoMars 2016 Mission to the Red Planet.  It consists of two spacecraft -  the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM) which will land.  Credit: ESA
ExoMars 2016 Mission to the Red Planet. It consists of two spacecraft – the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM) which will land. Credit: ESA

The 2016 lander will carry an international suite of science instruments and test European entry, descent and landing (EDL) technologies for the 2nd ExoMars mission in 2018.

The battery powered lander is expected to operate for up to eight days.

The 2018 ExoMars mission will deliver an advanced rover to the Red Planet’s surface.

It is equipped with the first ever deep driller that can collect samples to depths of 2 meters where the environment is shielded from the harsh conditions on the surface – namely the constant bombardment of cosmic radiation and the presence of strong oxidants like perchlorates that can destroy organic molecules.

ExoMars was originally a joint NASA/ESA project.

But thanks to hefty cuts to NASA’s budget by Washington DC politicians, NASA was forced to terminate the agencies involvement after several years of extremely detailed work and withdraw from participation as a full partner in the exciting ExoMars missions.

Thereafter Russia agreed to take NASA’s place and provide the much needed funding and rockets for the pair of launches in March 2016 and May 2018.

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

Ken Kremer

ExoMars 2016 Orbiter and Lander Mated for March Launch

ExoMars Schiaparelli lander being mated with the Trace Gas Orbiter on 12 February 2016. Credit: ESA - B. Bethge
ExoMars Schiaparelli lander being mated with the Trace Gas Orbiter on 12 February 2016. Credit: ESA – B. Bethge

Earth’s lone mission to the Red Planet this year has now been assembled into launch configuration and all preparations are currently on target to support blastoff from Baikonur at the opening of the launch window on March 14, 2016.

The ambitious ExoMars 2016 mission is comprised of a pair of European spacecraft named the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Schiaparelli lander, built and funded by the European Space Agency (ESA). Continue reading “ExoMars 2016 Orbiter and Lander Mated for March Launch”

Opportunity Robustly in Action on 12th Anniversary of Red Planet Touchdown

Composite hazcam camera image (left) shows the robotic arm in motion as NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity places the tool turret on the target named "Private John Potts" on Sol 4234 to brush away obscuring dust.  Rover is actively working on the southern side of "Marathon Valley" which slices through western rim of Endeavour Crater.  On Sol 4259 (Jan. 16,  2016), Opportunity completed grinds with the Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT) to exposure rock interior for elemental analysis, as seen in mosaic (right) of four up close images taken by  Microscopic Imager (MI).  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Composite hazcam camera image (left) shows the robotic arm in motion as NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity places the tool turret on the target named “Private John Potts” on Sol 4234 to brush away obscuring dust. Rover is actively working on the southern side of “Marathon Valley” which slices through western rim of Endeavour Crater. On Sol 4259 (Jan. 16, 2016), Opportunity completed grinds with the Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT) to exposure rock interior for elemental analysis, as seen in mosaic (right) of four up close images taken by Microscopic Imager (MI). Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

NASA’s world famous Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity continues blazing a daily trail of unprecedented science first’s, still swinging her robotic arm robustly into action at a Martian “Mining Zone” on the 12th anniversary of her hair-raising Red Planet touchdown this week, a top rover scientist told Universe Today.

“Looks like a mining zone!” Opportunity Deputy Principal Investigator Ray Arvidson, of Washington University in St. Louis, explained to Universe Today. On Jan. 24 the rover marked 4267 Sols and a dozen years and counting exploring Mars. Continue reading “Opportunity Robustly in Action on 12th Anniversary of Red Planet Touchdown”