Scientists Figure out how the Asteroid Belt Attacked the Dinosaurs

How do you track an asteroid that hit the Earth over 60 million years ago?  By using a combination of geology and computer simulations, at least according to a team of scientists from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI).  Those methods might have let them solve a long-standing mystery of both archeology and astronomy – where did the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs come from?

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Water Shaped Features on Mars Much Earlier Than Previously Believed

In two days (on Thursday, Feb. 18th, 2021), NASA’s Perseverance rover will land on Mars. As the latest robotic mission in the Mars Exploration Program (MEP), Perseverance will follow in the footsteps of its sister mission, Curiosity. Just in time for its arrival, research conducted at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) has shown that Mars’ surface was shaped by flowing water several million years earlier than previously thought.

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Earth Life Probably Can’t Spread to Mars Today

It’s no secret that Mars once had abundant water flowing on its surface in the forms of rivers, lakes, and even an ocean. For this reason, scientists continue to wonder whether or not Mars might have had life in the past. Today, the surface is an extremely cold, dry place where even a single droplet of water would instantly freeze, boil, or evaporate. Unless, of course, the water had salt dissolved in it.

If these “briny” patches still exist on Mars, then it’s possible there are small pockets on the surface where microbes can still exist. This presents problems as far as issues of “planetary protection” are concerned. However, a new study led by the Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI) has shown that if life from Earth were brought over by robotic or human explorers, it probably couldn’t survive in these brines.

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Europe’s Mission to Jupiter’s Moons Just Got its First Instrument

The space agencies of the world have some truly ambitious plans in mind for the coming decade. Alongside missions that will search for evidence for past (and maybe present) life on Mars, next-generation space telescopes, and the “return to the Moon”, there are missions will which will explore Jupiter’s moons for signs of extra-terrestrial life. These include the ESA’s JUpiter Icy Moon Explorer (JUICE), which will launch in 2022.

As part of the agency’s Cosmic Vision 2015-2025 program, this spacecraft will conduct detailed observations of Jupiter and three of its large moons – Ganymede, Callisto, and Europa – to see if they could indeed harbor life in their interiors. Late last month (Feb. 25th), the first instrument that will fly aboard JUICE and aid in these efforts was delivered and began the process of integration with the spacecraft.

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Now You Can See MU69 in Thrilling 3D

Got your 3D glasses handy? Then prepare for the most realistic views of Ultima Thule yet! Yes, it seems that every few weeks, there’s a new image of the Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) that promises the same thing. But whereas all the previous contenders were higher-resolution images that allowed for a more discernible level of detail, these images are the closest we will get to seeing the real thing up close!

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Weekly Space Hangout: Feb 6, 2019: Dr. Natalie Hinkel and “The Hypatia Catalog”

Hosts:
Fraser Cain (universetoday.com / @fcain)
Dr. Paul M. Sutter (pmsutter.com / @PaulMattSutter)
Dr. Kimberly Cartier (KimberlyCartier.org / @AstroKimCartier )
Dr. Morgan Rehnberg (MorganRehnberg.com / @MorganRehnberg & ChartYourWorld.org)

Dr. Natalie Hinkel is a Planetary Astrophysicist at the Southwest Research Institute and a co-investigator for the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) research network at Arizona State University. Natalie studies elements in our solar neighborhood (i.e., within 150pc of the Sun,) to learn how element abundances impact the structure and mineralogy of planets.

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Another Juno Flyby, Another Amazing Sequence of Images of Jupiter

In July of 2016, the Juno spacecraft established orbit around Jupiter, becoming the first spacecraft since the Galileo probe to study the planet directly. Since that time, the probe has been sending back vital information about Jupiter’s atmosphere, magnetic field and weather patterns. With every passing orbit – known as perijoves, which take place every 53 days – the probe has revealed more exciting things about this gas giant.
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Pluto is What You Get When a Billion Comets Smash Together

Pluto has been the focus of a lot of attention for more than a decade now. This began shortly after the discovery of Eris in the Kuiper Belt, one of many Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) that led to the “Great Planetary Debate” and the 2006 IAU Resolution. Interest in Pluto also increased considerably thanks to the New Horizons mission, which conducted the first flyby of this “dwarf planet” in July of 2015.

The data this mission provided on Pluto is still proving to be a treasure trove for astronomers, allowing for new discoveries about Pluto’s surface, composition, atmosphere, and even formation. For instance, a new study produced by researchers from the Southwest Research Institute (and supported by NASA Rosetta funding) indicates that Pluto may have formed from a billion comets crashing together.

The study, titled “Primordial N2 provides a cosmochemical explanation for the existence of Sputnik Planitia, Pluto“, recently appeared in the scientific journal Icarus. The study was authored by Dr. Christopher R. Glein – a researcher with the Southwest Research Institute’s Space Science and Engineering Division – and Dr. J. Hunter Waite Jr, an SwRI program director.

The first Kuiper Belt is home to more than 100,000 asteroids and comets there over 62 miles (100 km) across. Credit: JHUAPL

The origin of Pluto is something that astronomers have puzzled over for some time. An early hypothesis was that it was an escaped moon of Neptune that had been knocked out of orbit by Neptune’s current largest moon, Triton. However, this theory was disproven after dynamical studies showed that Pluto never approaches Neptune in its orbit. With the discovery of the Kuiper Belt in 1992, the true of origin of Pluto began to become clear.

Essentially, while Pluto is the largest object in the Kuiper Belt, it is similar in orbit and composition to the icy objects that surround it. On occasion, some of these objects are kicked out of the Kuiper Belt and become long-period comets in the Inner Solar System. To determine if Pluto formed from billions of KBOs, Dr. Glein and Dr. Waite Jr. examined data from the New Horizons mission on the nitrogen-rich ice in Sputnik Planitia.

This large glacier forms the left lobe of the bright Tombaugh Regio feature on Pluto’s surface (aka. Pluto’s “Heart”). They then compared this to data obtained by the NASA/ESA Rosetta mission, which studied the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (67P) between 2014 and 2016. As Dr. Glein explained:

“We’ve developed what we call ‘the giant comet’ cosmochemical model of Pluto formation. We found an intriguing consistency between the estimated amount of nitrogen inside the glacier and the amount that would be expected if Pluto was formed by the agglomeration of roughly a billion comets or other Kuiper Belt objects similar in chemical composition to 67P, the comet explored by Rosetta.”

New Horizon’s July 2015 flyby of Pluto captured this iconic image of the heart-shaped region called Tombaugh Regio. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

This research also comes up against a competing theory, known as the “solar model”. In this scenario, Pluto formed from the very cold ices that were part of the protoplanetary disk, and would therefore have a chemical composition that more closely matches that of the Sun. In order to determine which was more likely, scientists needed to understand not only how much nitrogen is present at Pluto now (in its atmosphere and glaciers), but how much could have leaked out into space over the course of eons.

They then needed to come up with an explanation for the current proportion of carbon monoxide to nitrogen. Ultimately, the low abundance of carbon monoxide at Pluto could only be explained by burial in surface ices or destruction from liquid water. In the end, Dr. Glein and Dr. Waite Jr.’s research suggests that Pluto’s initial chemical makeup, which was created by comets, was modified by liquid water, possibly in the form of a subsurface ocean.

“This research builds upon the fantastic successes of the New Horizons and Rosetta missions to expand our understanding of the origin and evolution of Pluto,” said Dr. Glein. “Using chemistry as a detective’s tool, we are able to trace certain features we see on Pluto today to formation processes from long ago. This leads to a new appreciation of the richness of Pluto’s ‘life story,’ which we are only starting to grasp.”

While the research certainly offers an interesting explanation for how Pluto formed, the solar model still satisfies some criteria. In the end, more research will be needed before scientists can conclude how Pluto formed. And if data from the New Horizons or Rosetta missions should prove insufficient, perhaps another to New Frontiers mission to Pluto will solve the mystery!

Further Reading: SwRI, Icarus

NASA’s Experimental Hurricane Monitoring Fleet Launched by Pegasus rocket

Launch of the Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket carrying NASA’s CYGNSS spacecraft at 8:37 a.m. EST on Dec. 15, 2016.  Credit: NASA TV/Ken Kremer
Launch of the Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket carrying NASA’s CYGNSS spacecraft at 8:37 a.m. EST on Dec. 15, 2016. Credit: NASA TV/Ken Kremer

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – NASA’s constellation of experimental hurricane monitoring CYGNSS microsatellites was successfully air launched by the unique Orbital ATK winged Pegasus rocket on Thursday, Dec 15 – opening a new era in weather forecasters ability to measure the buildup of hurricane intensity in the tropics from orbit that will eventually help save lives and property from impending destructive storms here on Earth.

The agency’s innovative Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) earth science mission was launched at 8:37 a.m. EST, Dec. 15, aboard a commercially developed Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket from a designated point over the Atlantic Ocean off the east coast of Florida.

Officials just announced this morning Dec. 16 that the entire fleet is operating well.

“NASA confirmed Friday morning that all eight spacecraft of its latest Earth science mission are in good shape.”

“The launch of CYGNSS is a first for NASA and for the scientific community,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

“As the first orbital mission in our Earth Venture program, CYGNSS will make unprecedented measurements in the most violent, dynamic, and important portions of tropical storms and hurricanes.”

An Orbital ATK L-1011 “Stargazer” aircraft carrying a Pegasus XL rocket with NASA’s CYGNSS spacecraft takes off from the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on Dec. 15, 2016 and successfully launches the spacecraft. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
An Orbital ATK L-1011 “Stargazer” aircraft carrying a Pegasus XL rocket with NASA’s CYGNSS spacecraft takes off from the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on Dec. 15, 2016 and successfully launches the spacecraft. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Late Thursday, NASA announced that contact had been made with the entire fleet of eight small satellites after they had been successfully deployed and safely delivered to their intended position in low Earth orbit.

“We have successfully contacted each of the 8 observatories on our first attempt,” announced Chris Ruf, CYGNSS principal investigator with the Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering at the University of Michigan.

“This bodes very well for their health and “status, which is the next thing we will be carefully checking with the next contacts in the coming days.”

The three stage Pegasus XL rocket housing the CYGNSS earth science payload inside the payload fairing had been carried aloft to 39,000 feet by an Orbital ATK L-1011 Tristar and dropped from the aircrafts belly for an air launch over the Atlantic Ocean and about 110 nautical miles east-northeast of Daytona Beach.

The Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket with NASA’s CYGNSS hurricane observing microsatellites  is attached to the belly of the Stargazer L-1011 as technicians work at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.  It launched the payload to orbit on Dec. 15, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket with NASA’s CYGNSS hurricane observing microsatellites is attached to the belly of the Stargazer L-1011 as technicians work at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. It launched the payload to orbit on Dec. 15, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The L-1011 nicknamed Stargazer took off at about 7:30 a.m. EST from NASA’s Skid Strip on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida as the media including myself watched the events unfold under near perfect Sunshine State weather with brilliantly clear blue skies.

After flying to the dropbox point – measuring about 40-miles by 10-miles (64-kilometers by 16-kilometers) – the Pegasus rocket was dropped from the belly, on command by the pilot, for a short freefall of about 5 seconds to initiate the launch sequence and engine ignition.

Pegasus launches horizontally in midair with ignition of the first stage engine burn, and then tilts up to space to begin the approximate ten minute trek to LEO.

The rocket launch and satellite release when exactly as planned with no hiccups.

It’s a beautiful day, with gorgeous weather,” said NASA CYGNSS launch director Tim Dunn. “We had a nominal flyout, and all three stages performed beautifully. We had no issues at all with launch vehicle performance.”

Deployment of the first pair of CYGNSS satellites in the eight satellite fleet started just 13 minutes after launch. The other six followed sequentially staged some 30 seconds apart.

“It’s a great event when you have a successful spacecraft separation – and with eight microsatellites, you get to multiply that times eight,” Dunn added.

“The deployments looked great — right on time,” said John Scherrer, CYGNSS Project Manager at the Southwest Research Institute and today’s CYGNSS mission manager, soon after launch.

“We think everything looks really, really good. About three hours after launch we’ll attempt first contact, and after that, we’ll go through a series of four contacts where we hit two [observatories] each time, checking the health and status of each spacecraft,” Scherrer added several prior to contact..

CYGNSS small satellite constellation launch came after a few days postponement due to technical issues following an aborted attempt on Monday, when the release mechanism failed and satellite parameter issues cropped up on Tuesday, both of which were rectified.

NASA’s innovative Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) mission is expected to revolutionize hurricane forecasting by measuring the intensity buildup for the first time.

“The CYGNSS constellation consists of eight microsatellite observatories that will measure surface winds in and near a hurricane’s inner core, including regions beneath the eyewall and intense inner rainbands that previously could not be measured from space,” according to a NASA factsheet.

CYGNSS is an experimental mission to demonstrate proof-of-concept that could eventually turn operational in a future follow-up mission if the resulting data returns turn out as well as the researchers hope.

The CYGNSS constellation of 8 identical satellites works in coordination with the Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite constellation.

The eight satellite CYGNSS fleet “will team up with the Global Positioning System (GPS) constellation to measure wind speeds over Earth’s oceans and air-sea interactions, information expected to help scientists better understand tropical cyclones, ultimately leading to improved hurricane intensity forecasts.”

They will receive direct and reflected signals from GPS satellites.

“The direct signals pinpoint CYGNSS observatory positions, while the reflected signals respond to ocean surface roughness, from which wind speed is retrieved.”

This schematic outlines the key launch events:

Schematic of Orbital ATK L-1011 aircraft and Pegasus XL rocket air drop launch of NASA’s CYGNSS microsatellite fleet.  Credit: Orbital ATK
Schematic of Orbital ATK L-1011 aircraft and Pegasus XL rocket air drop launch of NASA’s CYGNSS microsatellite fleet. Credit: Orbital ATK

The $157 million fleet of eight identical spacecraft comprising the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) system were all delivered to low Earth orbit by the Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket.

The nominal mission lifetime for CYGNSS is two years but the team says they could potentially last as long as five years or more if the spacecraft continue functioning.

Artist's concept of the deployment of the eight Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) microsatellite observatories in space.  Credits: NASA
Artist’s concept of the deployment of the eight Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) microsatellite observatories in space. Credits: NASA

Pegasus launches from the Florida Space Coast are infrequent. The last once took place over 13 years ago in late April 2003 for the GALEX mission.

Typically they take place from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California or the Reagan Test Range on the Kwajalein Atoll.

An Orbital ATK L-1011 “Stargazer” aircraft carrying a Pegasus XL rocket with NASA’s CYGNSS spacecraft takes off from the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on Dec. 12, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
An Orbital ATK L-1011 “Stargazer” aircraft carrying a Pegasus XL rocket with NASA’s CYGNSS spacecraft takes off from the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on Dec. 12, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CYGNSS counts as the 20th Pegasus mission for NASA and the 43rd mission overall for Orbital ATK.

The CYGNSS spacecraft were built by Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas.

The solar panels and spacecraft dispenser were built by Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC).

Each one weighs approx 29 kg. The deployed solar panels measure 1.65 meters in length.

The solar panels measure 5 feet in length and will be deployed within about 15 minutes of launch.

“We are thrilled to be a part of a project that helps gain better hurricane data that can eventually help keep a lot of people safe, but from a business side, we are also glad we could help SwRI achieve their mission requirements with better performance and lower cost and risk,” said Bryan Helgesen, director of strategy and business development for Space Technologies in SNC’s Space Systems business area, in a statement.

Rear view into the first stage engine of Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket that will launch NASA's CYGNSS experimental hurricane observation payload on Dec. 14, 2016. They are mated to the bottom of the Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer aircraft at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Rear view into the first stage engine of Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket that will launch NASA’s CYGNSS experimental hurricane observation payload on Dec. 14, 2016. They are mated to the bottom of the Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer aircraft at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Space Physics Research Laboratory at the University of Michigan College of Engineering in Ann Arbor leads overall mission execution in partnership with the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas.

The Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering Department at the University of Michigan leads the science investigation, and the Earth Science Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate oversees the mission.

The Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer aircraft at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Attached beneath the Stargazer is the Orbital ATK Pegasus XL with NASA's CYGNSS payload on board, being processed for launch on Dec. 12, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer aircraft at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Attached beneath the Stargazer is the Orbital ATK Pegasus XL with NASA’s CYGNSS payload on board, being processed for launch on Dec. 12, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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

Ken Kremer

An Orbital ATK technician checks the installation of two of the eight the CYGNSS microsatellites on their deployment module at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.  Credits: Photo credit: USAF
An Orbital ATK technician checks the installation of two of the eight the CYGNSS microsatellites on their deployment module at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Credits: Photo credit: USAF

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