NASA

First CubeSats to travel the solar system snap ‘Pale Blue Dot’ homage

Posted by | cubesat, Gadgets, Insight, jpl, NASA, science, Space, TC | No Comments

The InSight launch earlier this month had a couple of stowaways: a pair of tiny CubeSats that are already the farthest such tiny satellites have ever been from Earth — by a long shot. And one of them got a chance to snap a picture of their home planet as an homage to the Voyager mission’s famous “Pale Blue Dot.” It’s hardly as amazing a shot as the original, but it’s still cool.

The CubeSats, named MarCO-A and B, are an experiment to test the suitability of pint-size craft for exploration of the solar system; previously they have only ever been deployed into orbit.

That changed on May 5, when the InSight mission took off, with the MarCO twins detaching on a similar trajectory to the geology-focused Mars lander. It wasn’t long before they went farther than any CubeSat has gone before.

A few days after launch MarCO-A and B were about a million kilometers (621,371 miles) from Earth, and it was time to unfold its high-gain antenna. A fisheye camera attached to the chassis had an eye on the process and took a picture to send back home to inform mission control that all was well.

But as a bonus (though not by accident — very few accidents happen on missions like this), Earth and the moon were in full view as MarCO-B took its antenna selfie. Here’s an annotated version of the one above:

“Consider it our homage to Voyager,” said JPL’s Andy Klesh in a news release. “CubeSats have never gone this far into space before, so it’s a big milestone. Both our CubeSats are healthy and functioning properly. We’re looking forward to seeing them travel even farther.”

So far it’s only good news and validation of the idea that cheap CubeSats could potentially be launched by the dozen to undertake minor science missions at a fraction of the cost of something like InSight.

Don’t expect any more snapshots from these guys, though. A JPL representative told me the cameras were really only included to make sure the antenna deployed properly. Really any pictures of Mars or other planets probably wouldn’t be worth looking at twice — these are utility cameras with fisheye lenses, not the special instruments that orbiters use to get those great planetary shots.

The MarCOs will pass by Mars at the same time that InSight is making its landing, and depending on how things go, they may even be able to pass on a little useful info to mission control while it happens. Tune in on November 26 for that!

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NASA’s InSight Mars lander will gaze (and drill) into the depths of the Red Planet

Posted by | Gadgets, hardware, Insight, jpl, mars lander, NASA, robotics, science, Space, TC | No Comments

NASA’s latest mission to Mars, InSight, is set to launch early Saturday morning in pursuit of a number of historic firsts in space travel and planetology. The lander’s instruments will probe the surface of the planet and monitor its seismic activity with unprecedented precision, while a pair of diminutive CubeSats riding shotgun will test the viability of tiny spacecraft for interplanetary travel.

Saturday at 4:05 AM Pacific is the first launch opportunity, but if weather forbids it, they’ll just try again soon after — the chances of clouds sticking around all the way until June 8, when the launch window closes, are slim to none.

InSight isn’t just a pretty name they chose; it stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, at least after massaging the acronym a bit. Its array of instruments will teach us about the Martian interior, granting us insight (see what they did there?) into the past and present of Mars and the other rocky planets in the solar system, including Earth.

Bruce Banerdt, principal investigator for the mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has been pushing for this mission for more than two decades, after practically a lifetime working at the place.

“This is the only job I’ve ever had in my life other than working in the tire shop during the summertime,” he said in a recent NASA podcast. He’s worked on plenty of other missions, of course, but his dedication to this one has clearly paid off. It was actually originally scheduled to launch in 2016, but some trouble with an instrument meant they had to wait until the next launch window — now.

InSight is a lander in the style of Phoenix, about the size of a small car, and shot towards Mars faster than a speeding bullet. The launch is a first in itself: NASA has never launched an interplanetary mission from the West coast, but conditions aligned in this case, making California’s Vandenberg air base the best option. It doesn’t even require a gravity assist to get where it’s going.

Did you know? I’ll be the 1st spacecraft to travel from the West Coast of the U.S. to another planet. My rocket can do that—we’ve got the power. 🚀
More on launch: https://t.co/DZ8GsDTfGc pic.twitter.com/VOWiMPek5x

— NASAInSight (@NASAInSight) May 2, 2018

“Instead of having to go to Florida and using the Earth’s rotation to help slingshot us into orbit… We can blast our way straight out,” Banerdt said in the same podcast. “Plus we get to launch in a way that is gonna be visible to maybe 10 million people in Southern California because this rocket’s gonna go right by LA, right by San Diego. And if people are willing to get up at four o’clock in the morning, they should see a pretty cool light show that day.”

The Atlas V will take it up to orbit and the Centaur will give it its push towards Mars, after which it will cruise for six months or so, arriving late in the Martian afternoon on November 26 (Earth calendar).

Its landing will be as exciting (and terrifying) as Phoenix’s and many others. When it hits the Martian atmosphere, InSight will be going more than 13,000 MPH. It’ll slow down first using the atmosphere itself, losing 90 percent of its velocity as friction against a new, reinforced heat shield. A parachute takes off another 90 percent, but it’ll still be going more than 100 MPH, which would make for an uncomfortable landing. So a couple thousand feet up it will transition to landing jets that will let it touch down at a stately 5.4 MPH at the desired location and orientation.

After the dust has settled (literally) and the lander has confirmed everything is in working order, it will deploy its circular, fanlike solar arrays and get to work.

Robot arms and self-hammering robomoles

InSight’s mission is to get into the geology of Mars with more detail and depth than ever before. To that end it is packing gear for three major experiments.

SEIS is a collection of six seismic sensors (making the name a tidy bilingual, bidirectional pun) that will sit on the ground under what looks like a tiny Kingdome and monitor the slightest movement of the ground underneath. Tiny high-frequency vibrations or longer-period oscillations, they should all be detected.

“Seismology is the method that we’ve used to gain almost everything we know, all the basic information about the interior of the Earth, and we also used it back during the Apollo era to understand and to measure sort of the properties of the inside of the moon,” Banerdt said. “And so, we want to apply the same techniques but use the waves that are generated by Mars quakes, by meteorite impacts to probe deep into the interior of Mars all the way down to its core.”

The heat flow and physical properties probe is an interesting one. It will monitor the temperature of the planet below the surface continually for the duration of the mission — but in order to do so, of course, it has to dig its way down. For that purpose it’s installed with what the team calls a “self-hammering mechanical mole.” Pretty self-explanatory, right?

The “mole” is sort of like a hollow, inch-thick, 16-inch-long nail that will use a spring-loaded tungsten block inside itself to drive itself into the rock. It’s estimated that it will take somewhere between 5,000 and 20,000 strikes to get deep enough to escape the daily and seasonal temperature changes at the surface.

Lastly there’s the Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment, which actually doesn’t need a giant nail, a tiny Kingdome or anything like that. The experiment involves tracking the position of InSight with extreme precision as Mars rotates, using its radio connection with Earth. It can be located to within about four inches, which when you think about it is pretty unbelievable to begin with. The way that position varies may indicate a wobble in the planet’s rotation and consequently shed light on its internal composition. Combined with data from similar experiments in the ’70s and ’90s, it should let planetologists determine how molten the core is.

“In some ways, InSight is like a scientific time machine that will bring back information about the earliest stages of Mars’ formation 4.5 billion years ago,” said Banerdt in an earlier news release. “It will help us learn how rocky bodies form, including Earth, its moon, and even planets in other solar systems.”

In another space first, Insight has a robotic arm that will not just do things like grab rocks to look at, but will grab items from its own inventory and deploy them into its workspace. Its little fingers will grab handles on top of each deployable instrument and grab it just like a human might. Well, maybe a little differently, but the principle is the same. At nearly 8 feet long, it has a bit more reach than the average astronaut.

Cubes riding shotgun

One of the MarCO cubesats.

Insight is definitely the main payload, but it’s not the only one. Launching on the same rocket are two CubeSats, known collectively as Mars Cube One, or MarCO. These “briefcase-size” guys will separate from the rocket around the same time as InSight, but take slightly different trajectories. They don’t have the control to adjust their motion and enter an orbit, so they’ll just zoom by Mars right as Insight is landing.

CubeSats launch all the time, though, right? Sure — into Earth orbit. This will be the first attempt to send CubeSats to another planet. If successful there’s no limit to what could be accomplished — assuming you don’t need to pack anything bigger than a breadbox.

The spacecraft aren’t carrying any super-important experiments; there are two in case one fails, and both are only equipped with UHF antennas to send and receive data, and a couple of low-resolution visible-light cameras. The experiment here is really the CubeSats themselves and this launch technique. If they make it to Mars, they might be able to help send InSight’s signal home, and if they keep operating beyond that, it’s just icing on the cake.

You can follow along with InSight’s launch here; there’s also the traditional anthropomorphized Twitter account. We’ll post a link to the live stream as soon as it goes up.

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Watch SpaceX launch NASA’s new planet-hunting satellite here

Posted by | Gadgets, hardware, NASA, science, Space, SpaceX, TESS | No Comments

It’s almost time for SpaceX to launch NASA’s TESS, a space telescope that will search for exoplants across nearly the entire night sky. The launch has been delayed more than once already: originally scheduled for March 20, it slipped to April 16 (Monday), then some minor issues pushed it to today — at 3:51 PM Pacific time, to be precise. You can watch the launch live below.

TESS, which stands for Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, is basically a giant wide-angle camera (four of them, actually) that will snap pictures of the night sky from a wide, eccentric and never before tried orbit.

The technique it will use is fundamentally the same as that employed by NASA’s long-running and highly successful Kepler mission. When distant plants pass between us and their star, it causes a momentary decrease in that star’s brightness. TESS will monitor thousands of stars simultaneously for such “transits,” watching a single section of sky for a month straight before moving on to another.

By two years, it will have imaged 85 percent of the sky — hundreds of times the area Kepler observed, and on completely different stars: brighter ones that should yield more data.

TESS, which is about the size of a small car, will launch on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceX will attempt to recover the first stage of the rocket by having it land on a drone ship, and the nose cone will, hopefully, get a gentle parachute-assisted splashdown in the Atlantic, where it too can be retrieved.

The feed below should go live 15 minutes before launch, or at about 3:35.

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From fungal architecture to shape-shifting robo-swarms, here are NASA’s latest moonshots

Posted by | Gadgets, Government, hardware, NASA, robotics, science, Space | No Comments

The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program is perhaps the best place to get federal funding for an idea that sounds crazy — because the program managers think it might be just crazy enough to work.

Researchers making the “Phase I” cut are awarded about $125,000 over 9 months to develop their idea, be it mind-boggling or merely technically difficult. If significant progress is made or the concept is otherwise found to be promising, a second “Phase II” investment of up to $500,000 can be made at NASA’s option.

This year, according to NIAC program executive Jason Derleth, was “especially fierce, with over 230 proposals and only 25 winners.” A significant amount of Phase II awards were also made (you may remember some from last year’s selections).

I’ve collected most of them here with explanations in the plainest language I could summon — click on to see what NASA thinks the future of space exploration might look like.

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SpaceX launch will bring science and supplies to ISS and return with a glitchy Robonaut

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Update: Launch and deployment successful!

SpaceX is set to launch its 14th resupply mission to the International Space Station, sending up a lightly used Dragon capsule filled with goodies at 1:30 PST. In addition to the delivery, this Dragon will also take back some cargo: the malfunctioning Robonaut 2, which apparently bricked itself sometime during the last few months.

This will be the second flight for this Dragon capsule, which last visited the station two years ago on CRS-8; the Falcon 9 rocket it’s launching atop of is also being reused today for CRS-14. This will be the latter’s final flight, though: it’s not being recovered.

You can watch the launch live right here:

Inside are the usual food and other necessities, along with some interesting experiments. The Atmosphere-Space Interactions Monitor will watch thunderstorms for interesting electric phenomena like sprites and elves, gigantic jets and blue glimpses. Yes, those are real electric phenomena.

“Elve”

In-space fabrication will be getting an update with a brand new HP 3D printer made for microgravity, but also an experiment in sintering-based additive manufacturing.

The challenge of microgravity also extends to biology, and a metabolic tracking project will look into how it affects various medicines. Another experiment looks at ways of delivering nutrients to plants that are used to having gravity help out.

The Dragon capsule will stay attached to the ISS for about a month while things are loaded and unloaded, including the ailing Robonaut 2. This experimental robot platform has been up there for years, but recently developed some kind of fault — perhaps an electrical short, speculated a NASA scientist at a press conference Sunday.

The team in space doesn’t seem to have the tools or time to figure it out, so Robonaut 2 is heading home to be fixed by its terrestrial maintenance workers. It should fly back up in a year or so; in the meantime, the denizens of the station will enjoy a little extra space.

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Omega takes us to the Dark Side with their new moonwatch

Posted by | chronograph, Gadgets, laser, Moon, NASA, neil armstrong, omega watches, TC, watch | No Comments

Omega has just announced a new version of their iconic Moonwatch, the chronograph that was worn most notably by Neil Armstrong on the surface of the moon. Their new model, the Dark Side of the Moon Apollo 8, features the traditional Moonwatch design with a few unique tweaks.

The has an exhibition back – you can see the movement through a glass crystal – as well as a skeletonized face. The bridges – the pieces that hold the gears in place – are laser etched with a representation of the lunar surface and blackened for effect. It contains a manual wind mechanical movement and, while there is no pricing yet, should come in at about $9,000.

The back of the case features an interesting quote. From the release:

“WE’LL SEE YOU ON THE OTHER SIDE” – the special words engraved on the caseback – were spoken by Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell on board the Apollo 8 mission at the start of the crew’s pioneering orbit to the dark side of the moon – a mysterious hemisphere never seen before by human eyes. Seconds before the spacecraft disappeared beyond the range of radio contact, Lovell spoke these final assuring words to ground control.

Why is this fancy and particularly expensive watch interesting? First, it’s a nice riff on the original Moonwatch, the first mechanical watch on the moon. Omega has been flogging the Moonwatch brand for decades and now they’re expanding to other space missions, including the Apollo 8. It’s a beautiful homage to the Golden Age of space exploration and it’s a bit more modern-looking than the original, austere black-and-white Speedmaster.

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NASA engineers stare at the sun to see shockwaves from supersonic flight

Posted by | Gadgets, NASA, Photography, Schlieren imaging, science, supersonic, TC, Transportation | No Comments

 Before the eclipse this summer, NASA warned us over and over again not to stare directly at the sun — but now they’re doing just that. Its researchers have reinvented a photography technique more than a century old, using the sun itself as a backdrop in order to capture the shockwave produced by a new supersonic jet. Read More

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Rocket blast from the past: Voyager 1 fires thrusters last used in 1980

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 While some spacecraft get the chance to go out in a blaze of glory, others are in it for the long haul – Voyager 1 more so than any other. The mission celebrated its 40th anniversary this year, but it’s not just a lump of metal floating through interstellar space: that baby still runs. Thrusts, rather. Read More

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Human pilot beats AI in drone race

Posted by | AI, artificial intelligence, drone, Gadgets, Google, jet propulsion laboratory, ken loo, NASA, Tango, TC | No Comments

 Anything you can do, AI can do better. Eventually. On October 12, NASA put on its own demonstration, pitting an AI-piloted racing drone against world-renowned drone pilot Ken Loo. Researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who have spent the last two years working on drone autonomy (which was funded by Google), built three custom drones equipped with cameras for vision and… Read More

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3D-printed space habitats earn $400K in prizes at NASA competition

Posted by | 3d printing, Gadgets, NASA, Space, TC | No Comments

 One of the many considerations we will have should we decide at last to colonize another planet is where we’ll live. Should we bring inflatable habitats? Should we ship girders and metal sheets? Or should we 3D-print the structures right there on the planet in question? Two universities’ early efforts to do so earned them a combined $400,000 at a NASA competition held last week. Read More

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