Category: spacecraft

In Conversation with the Sun: Parker Solar Pro…

Our Sun powers life on Earth. It defines our days, nourishes our
crops and even fuels our electrical grids. In our pursuit of knowledge
about the universe, we’ve learned so much about the Sun, but in many ways we’re
still in conversation with it, curious about its mysteries.

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Parker Solar
Probe
will advance this conversation, flying
through the Sun’s atmosphere as close as 3.8 million miles from our star’s
surface, more than seven times closer to it than any previous spacecraft. If
space were a football field, with Earth at one end and the Sun at the other,
Parker would be at the four-yard line, just steps away from the Sun! This
journey will revolutionize our understanding of the Sun, its surface and solar
winds.

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Supporting Parker on its journey to the
Sun are our communications networks. Three networks, the Near Earth Network,
the Space
Network
and the Deep Space Network, provide our
spacecraft with their communications, delivering their data to mission
operations centers. Their services ensure that missions like Parker have
communications support from launch through the mission.

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For Parker’s launch
on Aug. 12, the Delta IV Heavy rocket that sent Parker skyward relied on the Space
Network. A team at Goddard Space Flight Center’s Networks Integration Center
monitored the launch, ensuring that we maintained tracking and communications
data between the rocket and the ground. This data is vital, allowing engineers
to make certain that Parker stays on the right path towards its orbit around
the Sun.

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The Space Network’s constellation of Tracking and Data
Relay Satellites
(TDRS) enabled constant communications coverage for
the rocket as Parker made its way out of Earth’s atmosphere. These satellites
fly in geosynchronous orbit, circling Earth in step with its rotation, relaying
data from spacecraft at lower altitudes to the ground. The network’s three collections
of TDRS over the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans provide enough coverage
for continuous communications for satellites in low-Earth orbit.

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The Near Earth Network’s Launch
Communications Segment tracked early stages of Parker’s launch, testing our brand
new ground stations’ ability to provide crucial information about the rocket’s
initial velocity (speed) and trajectory (path). When fully operational, it will
support launches from the Kennedy spaceport, including upcoming Orion
missions. The Launch Communications Segment’s three ground stations are located
at Kennedy Space Center; Ponce De Leon, Florida; and Bermuda. 

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When Parker separated from the Delta IV
Heavy, the Deep Space Network took over. Antennas up to 230 feet in diameter at
ground stations in California, Australia and Spain are supporting Parker for
its 24 orbits around the Sun and the seven Venus flybys that gradually shrink
its orbit, bringing it closer and closer to the Sun. The Deep Space Network is
delivering data to mission operations centers and will continue to do so as
long as Parker is operational.

Near the
Sun, radio interference and the heat load on the spacecraft’s antenna makes
communicating with Parker a challenge that we must plan for. Parker has three
distinct communications phases, each corresponding to a different part of its
orbit.

When Parker comes closest to the Sun, the
spacecraft will emit a beacon tone that tells engineers on the ground about its
health and status, but there will be very little opportunity to command the
spacecraft and downlink data. High data rate transmission will only occur
during a portion of Parker’s orbit, far from the Sun. The rest of the time,
Parker will be in cruise mode, taking measurements and being commanded through
a low data rate connection with Earth.

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Communications infrastructure is vital to
any mission. As Parker journeys ever closer to the center of our solar system,
each byte of downlinked data will provide new insight into our Sun. It’s a
mission that continues a conversation between us and our star that has lasted many
millions of years and will continue for many millions more.

For more information about NASA’s mission
to touch the Sun: https://www.nasa.gov/content/goddard/parker-solar-probe

For more information about our satellite
communications check out: http://nasa.gov/SCaN


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Parker Solar Probe is Go for Launch

Tomorrow, Aug. 11, we’re launching a spacecraft to touch the Sun.

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The first chance to launch Parker Solar Probe is 3:33 a.m. EDT on Aug. 11 from Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Launch coverage on NASA TV starts at 3 a.m. EDT at nasa.gov/live.

After launch, Parker Solar Probe begins its daring journey to the Sun’s atmosphere, or corona, going closer to the Sun than any spacecraft in history and facing brutal heat and radiation.

Though Parker Solar Probe weighs a mere 1,400 pounds — pretty light for a spacecraft — it’s launching aboard one of the world’s most powerful rockets, a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy with a third stage added.

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Even though you might think the Sun’s massive means things would just fall into it, it’s surprisingly difficult to actually go there.
Any object leaving Earth starts off traveling at about 67,000 miles per
hour, same as Earth — and most of that is in a sideways direction, so
you have to shed most of that sideways speed to make it to the Sun. All
that means that it takes 55 times more launch energy to go to the Sun
than it does to go to Mars. On top of its powerful launch vehicle,
Parker Solar Probe will use seven Venus gravity assists to shed sideways
speed.

Even though Parker Solar Probe will lose a lot of sideways speed, it’ll still be going incredibly fast as its orbit draws closer to the Sun throughout its seven-year mission. At its fastest, Parker Solar Probe will travel at 430,000 miles per hour — fast enough to get from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. in one second — setting the record for the fastest spacecraft in history.

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But the real challenge was to keep the spacecraft from frying once it got there.

We’ve always wanted to send a mission to the corona, but we literally haven’t had the technology that can protect a spacecraft and its instruments from its scorching heat. Only recent advances have enabled engineers to build a heat shield that will protect the spacecraft on this journey of extremes — a tricky feat that requires withstanding the Sun’s intense radiation on the front and staying cool at the back, so the spacecraft and instruments can work properly.

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The 4.5-inches-thick heat shield is built like a sandwich. There’s a
thin layer of carbon material like you might find in your golf clubs or
tennis rackets, carbon foam, and then another thin piece of
carbon-carbon on the back. Even while the Sun-facing side broils at
2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, the back of the shield will remain a balmy 85
degrees — just above room temperature. There are so few particles in
this region that it’s a vacuum, so blocking the Sun’s radiation goes a
long way towards keeping the spacecraft cool.

Parker Solar Probe is also our first mission to be named after a living individual: Dr. Eugene Parker, famed solar physicist who in 1958 first predicted the existence of the solar wind.

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“Solar wind” is what Dr. Parker dubbed the stream of charged particles that flows constantly from the Sun, bathing Earth and our entire solar system in the Sun’s magnetic fields. Parker Solar Probe’s flight right through the corona allows it to observe the birth of the very solar wind that Dr. Parker predicted, right as it speeds up and over the speed of sound.  

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The corona is where solar material is heated to millions of degrees and where the most extreme eruptions on the Sun occur, like solar flares and coronal mass ejections, which fling particles out to space at incredible speeds near the speed of light. These explosions can also spark space weather storms near Earth that can endanger satellites and astronauts, disrupt radio communications and, at their most severe, trigger power outages.

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Thanks to Parker Solar Probe’s landmark mission, solar scientists will be able to see the objects of their study up close and personal for the very first time.

Up until now, all of our studies of the corona have been remote — that is, taken from a distance, rather than at the mysterious region itself. Scientists have been very creative to glean as much as possible from their remote data, but there’s nothing like actually sending a probe to the corona to see what’s going on.

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And scientists aren’t the only ones along for the adventure — Parker Solar Probe holds a microchip carrying the names of more than 1.1 million people who signed up to send their name to the Sun. This summer, these names and 1,400 pounds of science equipment begin their journey to the center of our solar system.

Three months later in November 2018, Parker Solar Probe makes its first close approach to the Sun, and in December, it will send back the data. The corona is one of the last places in the solar system where no spacecraft has visited before; each observation Parker Solar Probe makes is a potential discovery.

Stay tuned — Parker Solar Probe is about to take flight.

Keep up with the latest on the mission at nasa.gov/solarprobe or follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space: http://nasa.tumblr.com. 

Get to Know the 9 Astronauts Set to #LaunchAme…

Our Commercial Crew Program is
working with the American aerospace industry to develop and operate a
new generation of spacecraft to carry astronauts

to and from low-Earth orbit!

As we prepare to launch humans from American soil for the first time since the final space shuttle mission in 2011, get to know the astronauts who will fly with Boeing and SpaceX

as members of our commercial crew!

Bob
Behnken

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Bob Behnken

served as Chief of the NASA Astronaut Office from July 2012 to July
2015, where he was responsible for flight assignments, mission preparation, on-orbit
support of International Space Station crews and organization of astronaut
office support for future launch vehicles. Learn more about Bob

Eric Boe

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Eric
Boe first dreamed of being an astronaut at age 5 after his parents woke him up to
watch Neil Armstrong take his first steps onto the lunar surface. Learn more
about Eric
.

 Josh
Cassada 

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Josh Cassada  holds a Master of Arts Degree and a Doctorate in Physics with a
specialty in high energy particle physics from the University of Rochester, in
Rochester, New York. He was selected as a NASA astronaut in 2013, and his first
spaceflight will be as part of the Commercial Crew Program. Learn more about
Josh
.

Chris Ferguson

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Chris
Ferguson served as a Navy pilot before becoming a NASA astronaut, and was
commander aboard Atlantis for the final space shuttle flight, as part of the
same crew as Doug Hurley. He retired from NASA in 2011 and has been an integral
part of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner program. Learn more about Chris

Victor
Glover

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Victor Glover was selected as a NASA astronaut in 2013 while working as a Legislative Fellow in the United States Senate. His first spaceflight will be as part of the Commercial Crew Program. Learn more about Victor. 

Mike
Hopkins

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Mike Hopkins

was a top flight test engineer at the United States Air Force Test
Pilot School. He also studied political science at the Università degli Studi
di Parma in Parma, Italy, in 2005, and became a NASA astronaut in 2009. Learn
more about Mike
.

Doug Hurley

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In
2009, Doug Hurley was one of the record-breaking 13 people living on the space
station at the same time. In 2011, he served as the pilot on Atlantis during the
final space shuttle mission, delivering supplies and spare parts to the
International Space Station. Now, he will be one of the first people to launch
from the U.S. since that last shuttle mission. Learn more about Doug.

Nicole Mann

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Nicole
Mann is a Naval Aviator and a test pilot in the F/A-18 Hornet. She was selected
as a NASA astronaut in 2013, and her first spaceflight will be as part of the Commercial
Crew Program. Learn more about Nicole.

Suni
Williams 

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Suni Williams

has completed 7 spacewalks, totaling 50 hours and 40 minutes. She’s
also known for running. In April 2007, Suni ran the first marathon in space,
the Boston Marathon, in 4 hours and 24 minutes. Learn more about Suni.

Boeing and SpaceX are scheduled to complete their crew flight tests in mid-2019 and April 2019, respectively. Once enabled, commercial transportation to and from the
International Space Station will empower more station use, more research time and more
opportunities to understand and overcome the challenges of living in space, which is critical for us to create a sustainable
presence on the Moon and carry out missions deeper into the solar system, including Mars! 

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Gamma-ray Bursts: Black Hole Birth Announcemen…

Gamma-ray bursts are the brightest, most violent explosions in the universe, but they can be surprisingly tricky to detect. Our eyes can’t see them because they are tuned to just a limited portion of the types of light that exist, but thanks to technology, we can even see the highest-energy form of light in the cosmos — gamma rays.

So how did we discover gamma-ray bursts? 

Accidentally!

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We didn’t actually develop gamma-ray detectors to peer at the universe — we were keeping an eye on our neighbors! During the Cold War, the United States and the former Soviet Union both signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963 that stated neither nation would test nuclear weapons in space. Just one week later, the US launched the first Vela satellite to ensure the treaty wasn’t being violated. What they saw instead were gamma-ray events happening out in the cosmos!

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Things Going Bump in the Cosmos

Each of these gamma-ray events, dubbed “gamma-ray bursts” or GRBs, lasted such a short time that information was very difficult to gather. For decades their origins, locations and causes remained a cosmic mystery, but in recent years we’ve been able to figure out a lot about GRBs. They come in two flavors: short-duration (less than two seconds) and long-duration (two seconds or more). Short and long bursts seem to be caused by different cosmic events, but the end result is thought to be the birth of a black hole.

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Short GRBs are created by binary neutron star mergers. Neutron stars are the superdense leftover cores of really massive stars that have gone supernova. When two of them crash together (long after they’ve gone supernova) the collision releases a spectacular amount of energy before producing a black hole. Astronomers suspect something similar may occur in a merger between a neutron star and an already-existing black hole.

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Long GRBs account for most of the bursts we see and can be created when an extremely massive star goes supernova and launches jets of material at nearly the speed of light (though not every supernova will produce a GRB). They can last just a few seconds or several minutes, though some extremely long GRBs have been known to last for hours!

A Gamma-Ray Burst a Day Sends Waves of Light Our Way!

Our Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope detects a GRB nearly every day, but there are actually many more happening — we just can’t see them! In a GRB, the gamma rays are shot out in a narrow beam. We have to be lined up just right in order to detect them, because not all bursts are beamed toward us — when we see one it’s because we’re looking right down the barrel of the gamma-ray gun. Scientists estimate that there are at least 50 times more GRBs happening each day than we detect!

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So what’s left after a GRB — just a solitary black hole? Since GRBs usually last only a matter of seconds, it’s very difficult to study them in-depth. Fortunately, each one leaves an afterglow that can last for hours or even years in extreme cases. Afterglows are created when the GRB jets run into material surrounding the star. Because that material slows the jets down, we see lower-energy light, like X-rays and radio waves, that can take a while to fade. Afterglows are so important in helping us understand more about GRBs that our Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory was specifically designed to study them!

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Last fall, we had the opportunity to learn even more from a gamma-ray burst than usual! From 130 million light-years away, Fermi witnessed a pair of neutron stars collide, creating a spectacular short GRB. What made this burst extra special was the fact that ground-based gravitational wave detectors LIGO and Virgo caught the same event, linking light and gravitational waves to the same source for the first time ever!

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For over 10 years now, Fermi has been exploring the gamma-ray universe. Thanks to Fermi, scientists are learning more about the fundamental physics of the cosmos, from dark matter to the nature of space-time and beyond. Discover more about how we’ll be celebrating Fermi’s achievements all year!

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Tools of the Trade: How Parker Solar Probe Wil…

Our Parker Solar Probe will get closer to the Sun than any spacecraft has ever gone – it will fly right through the Sun’s corona, part of the Sun’s atmosphere.

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This spacecraft is full of cutting-edge technology, from its heat shield down to its guidance and control systems. It also carries four suites of advanced instruments designed to study the Sun in a multitude of ways.  

1. Measuring particles

Two of Parker Solar Probe’s instrument suites are focused on measuring particles – electrons and ions – within the corona.

One of these particle-measuring instrument suites is SWEAP (Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons). SWEAP counts the most common particles in the solar wind – the Sun’s constant outflow of material – and measures their properties, like velocity, density and temperature. Gathering this information about solar wind particles will help scientists better understand why the solar wind reaches supersonic speeds and exactly which part of the Sun the particles come from.

One instrument in the SWEAP suite is the Solar Probe Cup. Most of the instruments on Parker Solar Probe stay safe and cool in the shadow of the heat shield, but the Solar Probe Cup is one of the few that sticks out. That’s so it can capture and measure particles streaming straight out from the Sun, and it had to go through some intense testing to get ready for this position in the Sun’s incredibly hot corona.  

Credit: Levi Hutmacher/Michigan Engineering

The ISʘIS suite (pronounced EE-sis, and including the symbol for the Sun in its acronym) also measures particles. ISʘIS is short for Integrated Science Investigation of the Sun, and this instrument suite measures particles that move faster – and therefore have more energy – than the solar wind.

These measurements will help scientists understand these particles’ lifecycles – where they came from, how they got to be traveling so fast (these particles can reach speeds more than half the speed of light!) and what path they take as they travel away from the Sun and into interplanetary space.

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2. Taking pictures – but not of the Sun’s surface.

WISPR (Wide-Field Imager for Parker Solar Probe) has the only two cameras on Parker Solar Probe – but they’re not pointed directly at the Sun. Instead, WISPR looks out the side of the spacecraft, in the direction it’s traveling, looking at the space Parker Solar Probe is about to fly through. From that vantage point, WISPR captures images of structures within the corona like coronal mass ejections, or CMEs. CMEs are clouds of solar material that occasionally explode from the Sun at millions of miles per hour. Because this solar material is magnetized, CMEs can trigger geomagnetic storms when they reach Earth – which, in turn, can cause effects like auroras and even, in extreme cases, power outages.  

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Right now, our observations of events like these come from satellites orbiting near Earth, so WISPR will give us a whole new perspective. And, scientists will be able to combine WISPR’s images with Parker Solar Probe’s direct particle measurements to get a better idea of how these structures change as they travel.

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3. Studying electric & magnetic fields

The FIELDS instrument suite is appropriately named: It’s what scientists will use to study the electric and magnetic fields in the corona.

Electric and magnetic fields are key to understanding what happens, not only on the Sun, but throughout space, because they the primary driver accelerating charged particles. In particular, a process called magnetic reconnection – when magnetic field lines explosively realign, sending particles rocketing away at incredible speeds – is thought to drive solar explosions, as well as space weather effects on Earth, like the aurora.

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FIELDS measures electric and magnetic field at high time resolution, meaning it takes lots of measurements in a short amount of time, to track these processes and shed some light on the mechanics underlying the Sun’s behavior. FIELDS’ measurements are precisely synced up with those of the SWEAP suite (one of the sets of instruments studying particles) so that scientists can match up the immediate effects that electric and magnetic fields have on the material of the solar wind.

Parker Solar Probe launches summer 2018 on its mission to study the Sun. Keep up with the latest on the mission at nasa.gov/solarprobe or follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

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Meet Parker Solar Probe, Our Mission to Touch …

In just a few weeks, we’re launching a spacecraft to get closer to the Sun than any human-made object has ever gone.

The mission, called Parker Solar Probe, is outfitted with a lineup of instruments to measure the Sun’s particles, magnetic and electric fields, solar wind and more – all to help us better understand our star, and, by extension, stars everywhere in the universe.

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Parker Solar Probe is about the size of a small car, and after launch – scheduled for no earlier than Aug. 6, 2018 – it will swing by Venus on its way to the Sun, using a maneuver called a gravity assist to draw its orbit closer to our star. Just three months after launch, Parker Solar Probe will make its first close approach to the Sun – the first of 24 throughout its seven-year mission.

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Though Parker Solar Probe will get closer and closer to the Sun with each orbit, the first approach will already place the spacecraft as the closest-ever human-made object to the Sun, swinging by at 15 million miles from its surface. This distance places it well within the corona, a region of the Sun’s outer atmosphere that scientists think holds clues to some of the Sun’s fundamental physics.

For comparison, Mercury orbits at about 36 million miles from the Sun, and the previous record holder – Helios 2, in 1976 – came within 27 million miles of the solar surface. 

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Humanity has studied the Sun for thousands of years, and our modern understanding of the Sun was revolutionized some 60 years ago with the start of the Space Age. We’ve come to understand that the Sun affects Earth in more ways than just providing heat and light – it’s an active and dynamic star that releases solar storms that influence Earth and other worlds throughout the solar system. The Sun’s activity can trigger the aurora, cause satellite and communications disruptions, and even – in extreme cases – lead to power outages.

Much of the Sun’s influence on us is embedded in the solar wind, the Sun’s constant outflow of magnetized material that can interact with Earth’s magnetic field. One of the earliest papers theorizing the solar wind was written by Dr. Gene Parker, after whom the mission is named.

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Though we understand the Sun better than we ever have before, there are still big questions left to be answered, and that’s where scientists hope Parker Solar Probe will help.  

First, there’s the coronal heating problem. This refers to the counterintuitive truth that the Sun’s atmosphere – the corona – is much, much hotter than its surface, even though the surface is millions of miles closer to the Sun’s energy source at its core. Scientists hope Parker Solar Probe’s in situ and remote measurements will help uncover the mechanism that carries so much energy up into the upper atmosphere.

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Second, scientists hope to better understand the solar wind. At some point on its journey from the Sun out into space, the solar wind is accelerated to supersonic speeds and heated to extraordinary temperatures. Right now, we measure solar wind primarily with a group of satellites clustered around Lagrange point 1, a spot in space between the Sun and Earth some 1 million miles from us. 

By the time the solar wind reaches these satellites, it has traveled about 92 million miles already, blending together the signatures that could shed light on the acceleration process. Parker Solar Probe, on the other hand, will make similar measurements less than 4 million miles from the solar surface – much closer to the solar wind’s origin point and the regions of interest.

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Scientists also hope that Parker Solar
Probe will uncover the mechanisms at work behind the acceleration of solar
energetic particles, which can reach speeds more than half as fast as the speed
of light as they rocket away from the Sun! Such particles can interfere with
satellite electronics, especially for satellites outside of Earth’s magnetic
field.

Parker
Solar Probe will launch from Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air
Force Station, adjacent to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Because of the enormous speed required to
achieve its solar orbit, the spacecraft will launch on a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy, one of the most powerful rockets in the
world.

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Stay tuned over the next few weeks to learn more about Parker Solar Probe’s science and follow along with its journey to launch. We’ll be posting updates here on Tumblr, on Twitter and Facebook, and at nasa.gov/solarprobe.

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Solar System 10 Things: Looking Back at Pluto

In July 2015, we saw Pluto up close for the first time and—after three years of intense study—the surprises keep coming. “It’s clear,” says Jeffery Moore, New Horizons’ geology team lead, “Pluto is one of the most amazing and complex objects in our solar system.”

1. An Improving View

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These are combined observations of Pluto over the course of several decades. The first frame is a digital zoom-in on Pluto as it appeared upon its discovery by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930. More frames show of Pluto as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. The final sequence zooms in to a close-up frame of Pluto taken by our New Horizons spacecraft on July 14, 2015.

2. The Heart

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Pluto’s surface sports a remarkable range of subtle colors are enhanced in this view to a rainbow of pale blues, yellows, oranges, and deep reds. Many landforms have their own distinct colors, telling a complex geological and climatological story that scientists have only just begun to decode. The image resolves details and colors on scales as small as 0.8 miles (1.3 kilometers). Zoom in on the full resolution image on a larger screen to fully appreciate the complexity of Pluto’s surface features.

3. The Smiles

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July 14, 2015: New Horizons team members Cristina Dalle Ore, Alissa Earle and Rick Binzel react to seeing the spacecraft’s last and sharpest image of Pluto before closest approach.

4. Majestic Mountains

Just 15 minutes after its closest approach to Pluto, the New Horizons spacecraft captured this near-sunset view of the rugged, icy mountains and flat ice plains extending to Pluto’s horizon. The backlighting highlights more than a dozen layers of haze in Pluto’s tenuous atmosphere. The image was taken from a distance of 11,000 miles (18,000 kilometers) to Pluto; the scene is 780 miles (1,250 kilometers) wide.

5. Icy Dunes

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Found near the mountains that encircle Pluto’s Sputnik Planitia plain, newly discovered ridges appear to have formed out of particles of methane ice as small as grains of sand, arranged into dunes by wind from the nearby mountains.

6. Glacial Plains

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The vast nitrogen ice plains of Pluto’s Sputnik Planitia – the western half of Pluto’s “heart”—continue to give up secrets. Scientists processed images of Sputnik Planitia to bring out intricate, never-before-seen patterns in the surface textures of these glacial plains.

7. Colorful and Violent Charon

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High resolution images of Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, show a surprisingly complex and violent history. Scientists expected Charon to be a monotonous, crater-battered world; instead, they found a landscape covered with mountains, canyons, landslides, surface-color variations and more.

8. Ice Volcanoes

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One of two potential cryovolcanoes spotted on the surface of Pluto by the New Horizons spacecraft. This feature, known as Wright Mons, was informally named by the New Horizons team in honor of the Wright brothers. At about 90 miles (150 kilometers) across and 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) high, this feature is enormous. If it is in fact an ice volcano, as suspected, it would be the largest such feature discovered in the outer solar system.

9. Blue Rays

Pluto’s receding crescent as seen by New Horizons at a distance of 120,000 miles (200,000 kilometers). Scientists believe the spectacular blue haze is a photochemical smog resulting from the action of sunlight on methane and other molecules in Pluto’s atmosphere. These hydrocarbons accumulate into small haze particles, which scatter blue sunlight—the same process that can make haze appear bluish on Earth.

10. Encore

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On Jan. 1, 2019, New Horizons will fly past a small Kuiper Belt Object named MU69 (nicknamed Ultima Thule)—a billion miles (1.5 billion kilometers) beyond Pluto and more than four billion miles (6.5 billion kilometers) from Earth. It will be the most distant encounter of an object in history—so far—and the second time New Horizons has revealed never-before-seen landscapes.

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6 Fun Facts About Our New Hexapod Robot

Satellites are crucial to everyday life and cost hundreds of millions of dollars to manufacture and launch. Currently, they are simply decommissioned when they run out of fuel. There is a better way, and it centers on satellite servicing, which can make spaceflight more sustainable, affordable, and resilient. Our satellite servicing technologies will open up a new world where fleet managers can call on robotic mechanics to diagnose, maintain and extend the lifespan of their assets.

Our new and unique robot is designed to test robotic satellite servicing capabilities. Standing 10 feet tall and 16 feet wide, the six-legged “hexapod” robot helps engineers perfect technologies before they’re put to use in space.

Here are SIX interesting facts about the hexapod:

1. The hexapod has six degrees of freedom. 

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This essentially means the robot can move in six directions—three translational directions (forward and backward, up and down and left and right), and three rotational directions (roll, pitch and yaw). Because of its wide range of movement, the hexapod mimics the way a satellite moves in zero gravity.

2. It can move up to eight inches per second and can extend up to 13 feet (but usually doesn’t).

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Like most space simulators, the hexapod typically moves slowly at about one inch per second. During tests, it remains positioned about nine feet off the floor to line up with and interact with a robotic servicing arm mounted to an arch nearby. However, the robot can move at speeds up to eight inches per second and extend/reach nearly 13 feet high!

3. The hexapod tests mission elements without humans.

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The hexapod is crucial to testing for our Restore-L project, which will prove a combination of technologies needed to robotically refuel a satellite not originally designed to be refueled in space.

Perhaps the most difficult part of refueling a satellite in space is the autonomous rendezvous and grapple stage. A satellite in need of fuel might be moving 16,500 miles per hour in the darkness of space. A servicer satellite will need to match its speed and approach the client satellite, then grab it. This nail-biting stage needs to be done autonomously by the spacecraft’s systems (no humans controlling operations from the ground).

The hexapod helps us practice this never-before-attempted feat in space-like conditions. Eventually a suite of satellite servicing capabilities could be incorporated in other missions.

4. This type of robot is also used for flight and roller coaster simulators.

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Because of the hexapod’s unparalleled* ability to handle a high load capacity and range of movement, while maintaining a high degree of precision and repeatability, a similar kind of robot is used for flight and roller coaster simulators.

*Pun intended: the hexapod is what is referred to as a parallel motion robot

5. The hexapod was designed and made in the U S of A.

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The hexapod was designed and built by a small, New Hampshire-based company called Mikrolar. Mikrolar designs and produces custom robots that offer a wide range of motion and high degree of precision, for a wide variety of applications.

6. The robot lives at our Goddard Space Flight Center’s Robotic Operations Center.

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The hexapod conducts crucial tests at our Goddard Space Flight Center’s Robotic Operations Center (ROC). The ROC is a 5,000-square-foot facility with 50 feet high ceilings. It acts as an incubator for satellite servicing technologies. Within its black curtain-lined walls, space systems, components and tasks are put to the test in simulated environments, refined and finally declared ready for action in orbit.

The hexapod is not alone in the ROC. Five other robots test satellite servicing capabilities. Engineers use these robots to practice robotic repairs on satellites rendezvousing with objects in space. 

Watch the hexapod in action HERE.

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Solar System 10 Things: Two Years of Juno at J…

Our Juno mission arrived at the King of Planets in July 2016. The intrepid robotic explorer has been revealing Jupiter’s secrets ever since. 

Here are 10 historic Juno mission highlights:

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1. Arrival at a Colossus

After an odyssey of almost five years and 1.7 billion miles (2.7 billion kilometers), our Juno spacecraft fired its main engine to enter orbit around Jupiter on July 4, 2016. Juno, with its suite of nine science instruments, was the first spacecraft to orbit the giant planet since the Galileo mission in the 1990s. It would be the first mission to make repeated excursions close to the cloud tops, deep inside the planet’s powerful radiation belts.

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2. Science, Meet Art

Juno carries a color camera called JunoCam. In a remarkable first for a deep space mission, the Juno team reached out to the general public not only to help plan which pictures JunoCam would take, but also to process and enhance the resulting visual data. The results include some of the most beautiful images in the history of space exploration.

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3. A Whole New Jupiter

It didn’t take long for Juno—and the science teams who hungrily consumed the data it sent home—to turn theories about how Jupiter works inside out. Among the early findings: Jupiter’s poles are covered in Earth-sized swirling storms that are densely clustered and rubbing together. Jupiter’s iconic belts and zones were surprising, with the belt near the equator penetrating far beneath the clouds, and the belts and zones at other latitudes seeming to evolve to other structures below the surface.

4. The Ultimate Classroom

The Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope (GAVRT) project, a collaboration among NASA, JPL and the Lewis Center for Educational Research, lets students do real science with a large radio telescope. GAVRT data includes Jupiter observations relevant to Juno, and Juno scientists collaborate with the students and their teachers.

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5. Spotting the Spot

Measuring in at 10,159 miles (16,350 kilometers) in width (as of April 3, 2017) Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is 1.3 times as wide as Earth. The storm has been monitored since 1830 and has possibly existed for more than 350 years. In modern times, the Great Red Spot has appeared to be shrinking. In July 2017, Juno passed directly over the spot, and JunoCam images revealed a tangle of dark, veinous clouds weaving their way through a massive crimson oval.

“For hundreds of years scientists have been observing, wondering and theorizing about Jupiter’s Great Red Spot,” said Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “Now we have the best pictures ever of this iconic storm. It will take us some time to analyze all the data from not only JunoCam, but Juno’s eight science instruments, to shed some new light on the past, present and future of the Great Red Spot.”

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6. Beauty Runs Deep

Data collected by the Juno spacecraft during its first pass over Jupiter’s Great Red Spot in July 2017 indicate that this iconic feature penetrates well below the clouds. The solar system’s most famous storm appears to have roots that penetrate about 200 miles (300 kilometers) into the planet’s atmosphere.

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7. Powerful Auroras, Powerful Mysteries

Scientists on the Juno mission observed massive amounts of energy swirling over Jupiter’s polar regions that contribute to the giant planet’s powerful auroras – only not in ways the researchers expected. Examining data collected by the ultraviolet spectrograph and energetic-particle detector instruments aboard Juno, scientists observed signatures of powerful electric potentials, aligned with Jupiter’s magnetic field, that accelerate electrons toward the Jovian atmosphere at energies up to 400,000 electron volts. This is 10 to 30 times higher than the largest such auroral potentials observed at Earth. 

Jupiter has the most powerful auroras in the solar system, so the team was not surprised that electric potentials play a role in their generation. What puzzled the researchers is that despite the magnitudes of these potentials at Jupiter, they are observed only sometimes and are not the source of the most intense auroras, as they are at Earth.

8. Heat from Within

Juno scientists shared a 3D infrared movie depicting densely packed cyclones and anticyclones that permeate the planet’s polar regions, and the first detailed view of a dynamo, or engine, powering the magnetic field for any planet beyond Earth (video above). Juno mission scientists took data collected by the spacecraft’s Jovian InfraRed Auroral Mapper (JIRAM) instrument and generated a 3D fly-around of the Jovian world’s north pole. 

Imaging in the infrared part of the spectrum, JIRAM captures light emerging from deep inside Jupiter equally well, night or day. The instrument probes the weather layer down to 30 to 45 miles (50 to 70 kilometers) below Jupiter’s cloud tops.

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9. A Highly Charged Atmosphere

Powerful bolts of lightning light up Jupiter’s clouds. In some ways its lightning is just like what we’re used to on Earth. In other ways,it’s very different. For example, most of Earth’s lightning strikes near the equator; on Jupiter, it’s mostly around the poles.

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10. Extra Innings

In June, we approved an update to Juno’s science operations until July 2021. This provides for an additional 41 months in orbit around. Juno is in 53-day orbits rather than 14-day orbits as initially planned because of a concern about valves on the spacecraft’s fuel system. This longer orbit means that it will take more time to collect the needed science data, but an independent panel of experts confirmed that Juno is on track to achieve its science objectives and is already returning spectacular results. The spacecraft and all its instruments are healthy and operating nominally. ​

Read the full web version of this week’s ‘Solar System: 10 Things to Know’ article HERE

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10 Things to Know: Massive Dust Storm on Mars

Massive Martian dust storms have been challenging—and enticing—scientists for decades. Here’s the scoop on Martian dust:

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1: Challenging Opportunity

Our Opportunity rover is facing one of the greatest challenges of its 14 ½ year mission on the surface of Mars–a massive dust storm that has turned day to night. Opportunity is currently hunkered down on Mars near the center of a storm bigger than North America and Russia combined. The dust-induced darkness means the solar-powered rover can’t recharge its batteries.

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2: One Tough Robot

This isn’t the first time Opportunity has had to wait out a massive storm. In 2007, a monthlong series of severe storms filled the Martian skies with dust. Power levels reached critical lows, but engineers nursed the rover back to health when sunlight returned.

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3: Windswept

Martian breezes proved a saving grace for the solar-powered Mars rovers in the past, sweeping away accumulated dust and enabling rovers to recharge and get back to science. This is Opportunity in 2014. The image on the left is from January 2014. The image on the right in March 2014.

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4: Dusty Disappointment

Back in 1971, scientists were eager for their first orbital views of Mars. But when Mariner 9 arrived in orbit, the Red Planet was engulfed by a global dust storm that hid most of the surface for a month. When the dust settled, geologists got detailed views of the Martian surface, including the first glimpses of ancient riverbeds carved into the dry and dusty landscape.

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5: Dramatic License

As bad as the massive storm sounds, Mars isn’t capable of generating the strong winds that stranded actor Matt Damon’s character on the Red Planet in the movie The Martian. Mars’ atmosphere is too thin and winds are more breezy than brutal. The chore of cleaning dusty solar panels to maintain power levels, however, could be a very real job for future human explorers.

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6: Semi-Regular Visitors

Scientists know to expect big dust storms on Mars, but the rapid development of the current one is surprising. Decades of Mars observations show a pattern of regional dust storms arising in northern spring and summer. In most Martian years, nearly twice as long as Earth years, the storms dissipate. But we’ve seen global dust storms in 1971, 1977, 1982, 1994, 2001 and 2007. The current storm season could last into 2019.

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7: Science in the Dust

Dust is hard on machines, but can be a boon to science. A study of the 2007 storm published earlier this year suggests such storms play a role in the ongoing process of gas escaping from the top of Mars’ atmosphere. That process long ago transformed wetter, warmer ancient Mars into today’s arid, frozen planet. Three of our orbiters, the Curiosity rover and international partners are already in position to study the 2018 storm.

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8: Adjusting InSight

Mission controllers for Mars InSight lander–due to land on Mars in November–will be closely monitoring the storm in case the spacecraft’s landing parameters need to be adjusted for safety. 

Once on the Red Planet, InSight will use sophisticated geophysical instruments to delve deep beneath the surface of Mars, detecting the fingerprints of the processes of terrestrial planet formation, as well as measuring the planet’s “vital signs”: Its “pulse” (seismology), “temperature” (heat flow probe), and “reflexes” (precision tracking).

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9: Martian Weather Report

One saving grace of dust storms is that they can actually limit the extreme temperature swings experienced on the Martian surface. The same swirling dust that blocks out sunlight also absorbs heat, raising the ambient temperature surrounding Opportunity.

Track the storm and check the weather on Mars anytime.

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10: Dust: Not Just a Martian Thing

A dust storm in the Sahara can change the skies in Miami and temperatures in the North Atlantic. Earth scientists keep close watch on our home planet’s dust storms, which can darken skies and alter Earth’s climate patterns.

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