NASA

Opportunity’s last Mars panorama is a showstopper

Posted by | Gadgets, Government, hardware, jpl, mars, mars rover, mars rovers, NASA, Opportunity, science, Space, TC | No Comments

The Opportunity Mars Rover may be officially offline for good, but its legacy of science and imagery is ongoing — and NASA just shared the last (nearly) complete panorama the robot sent back before it was blanketed in dust.

After more than 5,000 days (or rather sols) on the Martian surface, Opportunity found itself in Endeavour Crater, specifically in Perseverance Valley on the western rim. For the last month of its active life, it systematically imaged its surroundings to create another of its many impressive panoramas.

Using the Pancam, which shoots sequentially through blue, green and deep red (near-infrared) filters, it snapped 354 images of the area, capturing a broad variety of terrain as well as bits of itself and its tracks into the valley. You can click the image below for the full annotated version.

It’s as perfect and diverse an example of the Martian landscape as one could hope for, and the false-color image (the flatter true-color version is here) has a special otherworldly beauty to it, which is only added to by the poignancy of this being the rover’s last shot. In fact, it didn’t even finish — a monochrome region in the lower left shows where it needed to add color next.

This isn’t technically the last image the rover sent, though. As the fatal dust storm closed in, Opportunity sent one last thumbnail for an image that never went out: its last glimpse of the sun.

After this the dust cloud so completely covered the sun that Opportunity was enveloped in pitch darkness, as its true last transmission showed:

All the sparkles and dots are just noise from the image sensor. It would have been complete dark — and for weeks on end, considering the planetary scale of the storm.

Opportunity had a hell of a good run, lasting and traveling many times what it was expected to and exceeding even the wildest hopes of the team. That right up until its final day it was capturing beautiful and valuable data is testament to the robustness and care with which it was engineered.

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SpaceX makes history by completing first private crew capsule mission

Posted by | commercial crew, Gadgets, Government, hardware, international space station, ISS, NASA, Space, SpaceX | No Comments

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule has safely splashed down in the Atlantic, making it the first privately built crew-capable spacecraft ever to complete a mission to the International Space Station. It’s one of several firsts SpaceX plans this year, but Boeing is hot on its heels with a crew demonstrator of its own — and of course the real test is doing the same thing with astronauts aboard.

This mission, Demo-1, had SpaceX showing that its Crew Dragon capsule, an evolution of the cargo-bearing Dragon that has made numerous ISS deliveries, was complete and ready to take on its eponymous crew.

It took off early in the morning of March 2 (still March 1 on the West coast), circled the Earth 18 times, and eventually came to a stop (relatively speaking, of course) adjacent to the ISS, after which it approached and docked with the new International Docking Adapter. The 400 pounds of supplies were emptied, but the “anthropomorphic test device” known as Ripley — basically a space crash test dummy — stayed in her seat on board.

(It’s also worth noting that the Falcon 9 first stage that took the capsule to the edge of the atmosphere landed autonomously on a drone ship.)

Five days later — very early this morning — the craft disengaged from the ISS and began the process of deorbiting. It landed on schedule at about 8:45 in the morning Eastern time.

It’s a huge validation of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, and of course a triumph for SpaceX, which not only made and launched a functioning crew spacecraft, but did so before its rival Boeing. That said, it isn’t winner take all — the two spacecraft could very well exist in healthy competition as crewed missions to space become more and more common.

Expect to see a report on the mission soon after SpaceX and NASA have had time to debrief and examine the craft (and Ripley).

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SpaceX’s Crew Dragon makes its first orbital launch tonight

Posted by | commercial crew, crew dragon, Gadgets, Government, hardware, NASA, Space, SpaceX | No Comments

After years of development and delays, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is ready to launch into orbit. It’s the first commercially built and operated crewed spacecraft ever to do so, and represents in many ways the public-private partnership that could define the future of spaceflight.

Launch is set for just before midnight Pacific time — 2:49 Eastern time in Cape Canaveral, from where the Falcon 9 carrying the Crew Dragon capsule will take off. It’s using Launchpad 39A at Kennedy Space Center, which previously hosted Apollo missions and more recently SpaceX’s momentous Falcon Heavy launch. Feel free to relive that moment with us, while you’re here:

The capsule has been the work of many years and billions of dollars: an adaptation of the company’s Dragon capsule, but with much of its cargo space converted to a spacious crew compartment. It can seat seven if necessary, but given the actual needs of the International Space Station, it is more likely to carry two or three people and a load of supplies.

Of course it had to meet extremely stringent safety requirements, with an emergency escape system, redundant thrusters and parachutes, newly designed spacesuits, more intuitive and modern control methods and so on.

Crew Dragon interior, with “Ripley”

It’s a huge technological jump over the Russian Soyuz capsule that has been the only method to get humans to space for the last eight years, since the Shuttle program was grounded for good. But one thing Dragon doesn’t have is the Soyuz’s exemplary flight record. The latter may look like an aircraft cockpit shrunk down to induce claustrophobia, but it has proven itself over and over for decades. The shock produced by a recent aborted launch and the quickness with which the Soyuz resumed service are testament to the confidence it has engendered in its users.

But for a number of reasons the U.S. can’t stay beholden to Russia for access to space, and at any rate the commercial spaceflight companies were going to send people up there anyway. So NASA dedicated a major portion of its budget to funding a new crew capsule, pitting SpaceX and Boeing against one another.

SpaceX has had the best of Boeing for the most part, progressing through numerous tests and milestones, not exactly quickly, but with fewer delays than its competitor. Test flights originally scheduled for 2016 are only just now beginning to take place. Boeing’s Starliner doesn’t have a launch date yet, but it’s expected to be this summer.

Tonight’s test (“Demo-1”) is the first time the Crew Dragon will fly to space; suborbital flights and landing tests have already taken place, but this is a dry run of the real thing. Well, not completely dry: the capsule is carrying 400 pounds of supplies to the station and will return with some science experiments on board.

After launch, it should take about 11 minutes for the capsule to detach from the first and second stages of the Falcon 9 rocket. It docks about 27 hours later, early Sunday morning, and the crew will be able to get at the goodies just in time for brunch, if for some reason they’re operating on East Coast time.

SpaceX will be live streaming the launch as usual starting shortly before takeoff; you can watch it right here:

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The Opportunity Mars rover’s greatest shots and discoveries

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

Opportunity’s mission is complete, and the rover that was supposed to last 90 days closes the book on 15 years of exploration. It’s sad, but it’s also a great time to look back on the mission and see some of its greatest hits. Here are 25 images showing where it came from, where it went, and what it discovered on its marathon-length journey.

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Watch Blue Origin’s 10th New Shepard mission launch a science-loaded capsule to space

Posted by | Blue Origin, Gadgets, NASA, new shepard, rocket launch, science, Space, TC | No Comments

Blue Origin, the rocket company founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, is about to undertake the 10th launch of its New Shepard launch vehicle, with its capsule chock full of experiments. The launch, which was originally scheduled for a month ago but delayed for various reasons, will take place tomorrow at 6:50 AM Pacific time.

New Shepard is a sub-orbital space-visiting platform, not a satellite-launching one. But it uses a very traditional method of getting to the edge of space compared with Virgin Galactic’s rather involved mothership-spaceship combo, which scraped the very edge of space in its fourth test launch last month.

The rocket shoots straight up, as rockets do, reaches escape velocity, then pops its capsule off the top just before the Karman line that officially, if somewhat arbitrarily, delineates space from Earth’s atmosphere. The capsule, after exhausting its upward momentum, gently floats back to the surface under a parachute.

That’s the plan for Wednesday’s launch, which you can watch live here starting half an hour or so before T-0. But instead of taking a dummy load or “Mannequin Skywalker,” as the company calls its human stand-in during tests of the crew capsule, mission 10 has a whole collection of experiments on board.

There are nine experiments total, all flying through NASA’s Flight Opportunities program. They’re detailed here. Most have already been up in other vehicles or even a Blue Origin one, but obviously repetition and iteration is important to their development.

“The opportunity to re-fly our payload is helping us not only validate and compare data for different flight profiles, but also test modifications and upgrades,” said NASA’s Kathryn Hurlbert, who heads up the Suborbital Flight Experiment Monitor-2 project at Johnson Space Center.

More Flight Opportunities spots will be available on future NASA-sponsored launches, so if your lab has an experiment it would like to test on a sub-orbital rocket, get at the administrators as soon as the shutdown ends.

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The New Horizons probe buzzes the most distant object ever encountered first thing tomorrow

Posted by | alan stern, Gadgets, Government, hardware, NASA, new horizons, science, Space, TC, ultima thule | No Comments

Four billion miles from Earth, the New Horizons probe that recently sent such lovely pictures of Pluto is drawing near to the most distant object mankind has ever come close to: Ultima Thule, a mysterious rock deep in the Kuiper belt. The historic rendezvous takes place early tomorrow morning.

This is an encounter nearly 30 years in the making, if you count back to the mission’s beginnings in 1989, but it’s also been some 13 years since launch — the timing and nature of which was calculated to give the probe this opportunity after it had completed its primary mission.

New Horizons arrived at Pluto in the summer of 2015, and in its fleeting passage took thousands of photos and readings that scientists are still poring over. It taught us many things about the distant dwarf planet, but by the time it took its extraordinary parting shots of Pluto’s atmosphere, the team was already thinking about its next destination.

Given the craft’s extreme speed and the incredibly distant setting for its first mission, the options for what to investigate were limited — if you can call the billions of objects floating in the Kuiper Belt “limited.”

In fact the next destination had been chosen during a search undertaken in concert with the Hubble Space Telescope team back in 2014. Ground-based reconnaissance wasn’t exact enough, and the New Horizons had to convince Hubble’s operators basically to dedicate to their cause two weeks of the satellite’s time on short notice. After an initial rejection and “some high-stakes backroom maneuvering,” as Principal Investigator Alan Stern describes it in his book about the mission, the team made it happen, and Hubble data identified several potential targets.

Ultima Thule as first detected by New Horizons’ LORRI imager.

2014 MU69 is a rock of unknown (but probably weird) shape about 20 miles across, floating in the belt about a billion miles from Pluto. But soon it would be known by another name.

“Ultima Thule,” Stern told me in an interview onstage at Disrupt SF in September. “This is an ancient building block of planets like Pluto, formed 4 billion years ago; it’s been out there in this deep freeze, almost in absolute zero the whole time. It’s a time capsule.”

At the time, he and the team had just gotten visual confirmation of the target, though nothing more than a twinkle in the distance. He was leaving immediately after our talk to go run flyby simulations with the team.

“I’m super excited,” he told me. “That will be the most distant exploration of any world in the history of not just spaceflight, but in the history of human exploration. I don’t think anybody will top that for a long time.”

The Voyagers are the farthest human-made objects, sure, but they’ve been flying through empty space for decades. New Horizons is out here meeting strange objects in an asteroid belt. Good luck putting together another mission like that in less than a few decades.

In the time I’ve taken to write this post, New Horizons has gone from almost exactly 600,000 kilometers away from Ultima Thule to less than 538,000 (and by this you shall know my velocity) — so it’ll be there quite soon. Just about 10 hours out, making it very early morning Eastern time on New Year’s Day.

Even then, however, that’s just when New Horizons will actually encounter the object — we won’t know until the signal it sends at the speed of light arrives here on Earth 12 hours later. Pluto is far!

The first data back will confirm the telemetry and basic success of the flyby. It will also begin sending images back as soon as possible, and while it’s possible that we’ll have fabulous pictures of the object by the afternoon, it depends a great deal on how things go during the encounter. At the latest we’ll see some by the next day; media briefings are planned for January 2 and 3 for this purpose.

Once those images start flowing in, though, they may be even better in a way than those we got of Pluto. If all goes well, they’ll be capturing photos at a resolution of 35 meters per pixel, more than twice as good as the 70-80 m/px we got of Pluto. Note that these will only come later, after some basic shots confirming the flyby went as planned and allowing the team to better sort through the raw data coming in.

The New Horizons team reports the spacecraft is healthy and on track for the historic flyby of #UltimaThule just after midnight tonight! Watch flyby events live on NASATV and @JHUAPL starting at 2pm (ET): https://t.co/eMJrTOiPxQ | https://t.co/Zan07qh3OJ https://t.co/B3FxqIe6XN

NASA New Horizons (@NASANewHorizons) December 31, 2018

“You should know that that these stretch-goal observations are risky,” wrote Stern in a post on the mission’s page, “requiring us to know exactly where both Ultima and New Horizons are as they pass one another at over 32,000 mph in the darkness of the Kuiper Belt… But with risk comes reward, and we would rather try than not try to get these, and that is what we will do.”

NASA public relations and other staff are still affected by the federal shutdown, but the New Horizons team will be covering the signal acquisition and first data live anyway; follow the mission on Twitter or check in to the NASA Live stream tomorrow morning at 7 AM Pacific time for the whole program. The schedule and lots of links can be found here.

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Voyager 2 joins its twin in interstellar space

Posted by | Gadgets, NASA, science, Space, voyager, voyager 2 | No Comments

Voyager 2, the multi-planetary exploratory probe launched in 1977, has finally entered interstellar space, some six years after its twin, Voyager 1, did the same. It’s now about 11 billion miles from Earth, the second-farthest-out human-made object in space.

Interstellar space starts where the sun’s “heliosphere” ends — the big ball of radiation and plasma in which the planets bathe and by which they are protected. Both Voyagers have instruments on board that monitor all this stuff, and both have shown a major drop-off in electrical and plasma activity, suggesting they’ve crossed over.

The exact border of interstellar space is a matter of debate, a great deal of which occurred while Voyager 1 was on the very edge and scientists were arguing whether it was out or not. A consensus was reached, however, and most agree that both probes have now left the heliosphere.

They have not, however, left the solar system, defined more or less by the extent of the Oort cloud, an enormous collection of dust and small objects caught in the sun’s gravity (but just barely). Until the Voyagers leave that, in perhaps 30,000 years, they’re still technically in-system.

Interestingly, although Voyager 2 was the second to enter interstellar space, it was actually the first to launch. The risk of failure for these complex, ambitious probes was high enough that NASA felt it should build two and send them out one after another, and it so happened that Voyager 2 launched 16 days before Voyager 1. However, the latter’s trajectory caused it to exit the ecliptic (the flat disk in which most of the solar system’s objects are found) earlier and at a different angle.

That makes Voyager 2 NASA’s longest-running mission (though not the object in space for longest — early satellites are still floating around up there), and those working on it couldn’t be happier.

“I think we’re all happy and relieved that the Voyager probes have both operated long enough to make it past this milestone,” said Voyager project manager Suzanne Dodd at JPL, in a NASA news release. “This is what we’ve all been waiting for. Now we’re looking forward to what we’ll be able to learn from having both probes outside the heliopause.”

Both Voyagers should continue operating for at least a few more years; their power sources are likely to go out around 2025. At that point they’ll have been in space sending back data for nearly 50 years. Congratulations to the team and, really, to humanity, for doing something so amazing.

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Mars Lander InSight sends the first of many selfies after a successful touchdown

Posted by | Gadgets, Insight, mars, NASA, robotics, science, Space | No Comments

Last night’s 10 minutes of terror as the InSight Mars Lander descended to the Martian surface at 12,300 MPH were a nail-biter for sure, but now the robotic science platform is safe and sound — and has sent pics back to prove it.

The first thing it sent was a couple pictures of its surroundings: Elysium Planitia, a rather boring-looking, featureless plane that is nevertheless perfect for InSight’s drilling and seismic activity work.

The images, taken with its Instrument Context Camera, are hardly exciting on their own merits — a dirty landscape viewed through a dusty tube. But when you consider that it’s of an unexplored territory on a distant planet, and that it’s Martian dust and rubble occluding the lens, it suddenly seems pretty amazing!

Decelerating from interplanetary velocity and making a perfect landing was definitely the hard part, but it was by no means InSight’s last challenge. After touching down, it still needs to set itself up and make sure that none of its many components and instruments were damaged during the long flight and short descent to Mars.

And the first good news arrived shortly after landing, relayed via NASA’s Odyssey spacecraft in orbit: a partial selfie showing that it was intact and ready to roll. The image shows, among other things, the large mobile arm folded up on top of the lander, and a big copper dome covering some other components.

Telemetry data sent around the same time show that InSight has also successfully deployed its solar panels and is collecting power with which to continue operating. These fragile fans are crucial to the lander, of course, and it’s a great relief to hear they’re working properly.

These are just the first of many images the lander will send, though unlike Curiosity and the other rovers, it won’t be traveling around taking snapshots of everything it sees. Its data will be collected from deep inside the planet, offering us insight into the planet’s — and our solar system’s — origins.

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11 moments from the International Space Station’s first 20 years

Posted by | Gadgets, Government, international space station, ISS, NASA, Roscosmos, Space, TC | No Comments

It was November 20, 1998, when an unprecedented international coalition of astronomers, engineers and rocket scientists saw years of collaboration come to fruition with the launch of the International Space Station’s first component. Since then, the largest spacecraft ever built has hosted innumerable astronauts, experiments and other craft. Here are a few notable moments in the history of this inspiring and decades-spanning mission.

1984: Reagan proposes the ISS — without Russia

The space station was originally going to be a U.S. effort, but soon became a collaboration with Canada, Japan and Europe, excluding the then-USSR. American-Russian relations were strained then, as you may remember, and although many in the space industry itself would have preferred working together, the political climate did not permit it. Nevertheless, initial work began.

1993: Clinton adds Russia to the bill

The collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent rejuvenation of international relations led President Bush to bring them into the program in a limited fashion, as a supplier and as a guest on a shuttle mission. The next year, however, President Clinton one-upped him with the announcement that Russia would be a full partner. This was both a practical and political decision: Russian involvement would save billions, but it also helped bring Russia on board with other issues, like ICBM de-proliferation efforts. At any rate, designs were finally beginning to be built.

1998: The first components, Zarya and Unity, launch to orbit

Endeavour approaches Zarya when the latter was the only component in place.

Though persona non grata at first, Russia had the privilege of launching the first core component of the ISS on November 20, 1998, the anniversary we are celebrating today. The Zarya Functional Cargo Block is still up there, still being used, forming the gateway to the Russian side of the station.

One month later, Space Shuttle Endeavour took off from Launch Complex 39A (we’ve been there) carrying Unity Node 1. This too is up there now, attached since that day to Zarya.

2000: The first of many long-term occupants arrive

From left: Shepherd, Gidzenko and Krikalev, aboard the station.

Almost exactly a year after Zarya went up, the first astronauts took up residence on the ISS — the first of 230 people so far to call the orbiting structure home. Bill Shepherd was NASA’s first representative, flying with cosmonauts Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev; they would stay for about 141 days.

2003: Columbia disaster delays expansion

The fatal breakup of Space Shuttle Columbia on reentry following its 28th mission was tragedy enough that other shuttle missions were scrubbed for over two years. As these were the primary means of the U.S. adding to and maintaining the ISS, this responsibility passed to Roscosmos until shuttle launches resumed in 2005; crewed launches wouldn’t resume until mid-2006.

2007: Kibo goes up

Numerous modules have been added to the ISS over the years, but Japan’s Kibo is the largest. It took multiple missions to deliver all the pieces, and was only made possible by earlier missions that had expanded the solar power capacity of the station. Kibo contains a ton of reconfigurable space accessible from the pressurized interior, and has been popular for both private and public experiments that must be conducted in space.

2010: Enter the Cupola

If Kibo is the largest component, the Cupola is likely the most famous. The giant 7-window bubble looks like something out of science fiction (specifically, the front end of the Millennium Falcon) and is the location for the station’s most striking photography, both inside and out.

2014: Beautiful timelapses

With the Cupola in place, capturing imagery of the Earth from this amazing view became easier — especially with the increasingly high-quality digital cameras brought aboard by talented astronaut-photographers like Alexander Gerst and Don Pettit. The many, many photos taken out of this aperture have been formed into innumerable beautiful timelapses and desktop backgrounds, as well as witnessing incredible phenomena like aurora and lightning storms from a new and valuable perspective. It’s hard to pick just one, but Don Pettit’s “The World Outside My Window” above is a fabulous example, and Gerst’s 4K compilation is another.

2015: Gennady Padalka sets time in space record

During his fifth flight to space, Gennady Padalka set a world record for most time in space: When he returned to Earth he had logged a total of 878 days and change. That’s well ahead of the competition, which is almost exclusively Russian — though NASA’s Peggy Whitson is right up there with 666 days over three missions.

2016: Chinese station calling ISS, please pick up

It’s hardly crowded in space, but it can get lonely up there. So it’s nice that those who have the honor to fly reach out to each other. In this case China’s taikonaut Jing Haipeng recorded a heartwarming video message from the Chinese Tiangong-2 space station greeting the incoming ISS crew and praising the community of global cooperation that makes all this possible.

2018: Soyuz accident threatens long-term occupation

A crewed mission to the ISS with astronaut Nick Hague and cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin encountered a serious fault during launch, fortunately resulting in no injuries or fatalities but shaking up the space community. The Soyuz rocket and capsule had more than proven themselves over the years but no risks could be taken with human life, and future missions were delayed. It was possible that for the first time since it was first entered, the ISS would be empty as its crew left with no replacements on the way.

Fortunately the investigation has concluded and a new mission is planned for early December, which will prevent such an historic absence.

2019? First commercial crew mission and beyond

Russia has borne sole responsibility for all crewed launches for years; the U.S. has been planning to separate itself from this dependence by fostering a new generation of crew-capable capsules that can meet and exceed the safety and reliability of the Soyuz system. SpaceX and Boeing both plan 2019 flights for their respective Crew Dragon and Starliner capsules — though slipping dates and new regulatory attention may delay those further.

The ISS has a bright future despite its remarkable 20 years of continuous operation. It’s funded more or less through 2025, but there’s talk of new space stations from Russia and China both, while the U.S. eyes lunar orbit for its next big endeavor. It’s hard to imagine space now without an ISS full of people in it, however, and falling launch costs may mean that its life can be extended even further and for less cost. Here’s hoping the ISS has another two decades in front of it.

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The space pen became the space pen 50 years ago

Posted by | fisher space pen, Gadgets, NASA, Space | No Comments

Everyone knows about the space pen. NASA spent millions on R&D to create the ultimate pen that would work in zero gravity and the result was this incredible machine. Well, no. In fact it was made by a pen manufacturer in 1966 — but it wasn’t until October of 1968 that it went into orbit and fulfilled its space pen destiny.

The pen was created by pen maker (naturally) Paul Fisher, who used $1 million of his own money to create the AG-7 anti-gravity pen. As you may or may not know, the innovation was a pressurized ink cartridge and gel ink that would deploy reliably regardless of orientation, temperature or indeed the presence of gravity.

He sent it to NASA, which was of course the only organization reliably worried about making things work in microgravity, and they loved it. In fact, the Russians started using it shortly afterwards, as well.

Walt Cunningham, Wally Schirra and Donn Eisele took the pens aboard with them for the Apollo 7 mission, which launched on October 11, 1968, and they served them well over the next 11 days in orbit.

A 50th anniversary edition of the pen is now available to people who have a lot of money and love gold stuff. It’s $500, a limited edition of 500, and made of “gold titanium nitride plated brass,” and it comes with a case and commemorative plaque with a quote from Cunningham:

“Fifty years ago, I flew with the first flown Space Pen on Apollo 7. I relied on it then, and it’s still the only pen I rely on here on Earth.”

Okay, that’s pretty cool. Presumably astronauts get a lifetime supply of these things, though.

Here’s to the Fisher space pen, an example of American ingenuity and simple, reliable good design that’s persisted in use and pop culture for half a century.

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