Space

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe launches tonight to ‘touch the sun’

Posted by | artificial intelligence, Gadgets, Government, hardware, NASA, parker solar probe, science, Space, TC | No Comments

NASA’s ambitious mission to go closer to the Sun than ever before is set to launch in the small hours between Friday and Saturday — at 3:33 AM Eastern from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, to be precise. The Parker Solar Probe, after a handful of gravity assists and preliminary orbits, will enter a stable orbit around the enormous nuclear fireball that gives us all life and sample its radiation from less than 4 million miles away. Believe me, you don’t want to get much closer than that.

If you’re up late tonight (technically tomorrow morning), you can watch the launch live on NASA’s stream.

This is the first mission named after a living researcher, in this case Eugene Parker, who in the ’50s made a number of proposals and theories about the way that stars give off energy. He’s the guy who gave us solar wind, and his research was hugely influential in the study of the sun and other stars — but it’s only now that some of his hypotheses can be tested directly. (Parker himself visited the craft during its construction, and will be at the launch. No doubt he is immensely proud and excited about this whole situation.)

“Directly” means going as close to the sun as technology allows — which leads us to the PSP’s first major innovation: its heat shield, or thermal protection system.

There’s one good thing to be said for the heat near the sun: it’s a dry heat. Because there’s no water vapor or gases in space to heat up, find some shade and you’ll be quite comfortable. So the probe is essentially carrying the most heavy-duty parasol ever created.

It’s a sort of carbon sandwich, with superheated carbon composite on the outside and a carbon foam core. All together it’s less than a foot thick, but it reduces the temperature the probe’s instruments are subjected to from 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit to 85 — actually cooler than it is in much of the U.S. right now.

Go on – it’s quite cool.

The car-sized Parker will orbit the sun and constantly rotate itself so the heat shield is facing inward and blocking the brunt of the solar radiation. The instruments mostly sit behind it in a big insulated bundle.

And such instruments! There are three major experiments or instrument sets on the probe.

WISPR (Wide-Field Imager for Parker Solar Probe) is a pair of wide-field telescopes that will watch and image the structure of the corona and solar wind. This is the kind of observation we’ve made before — but never from up close. We generally are seeing these phenomena from the neighborhood of the Earth, nearly 100 million miles away. You can imagine that cutting out 90 million miles of cosmic dust, interfering radiation and other nuisances will produce an amazingly clear picture.

SWEAP (Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons investigation) looks out to the side of the craft to watch the flows of electrons as they are affected by solar wind and other factors. And on the front is the Solar Probe Cup (I suspect this is a reference to the Ray Bradbury story, “Golden Apples of the Sun”), which is exposed to the full strength of the sun’s radiation; a tiny opening allows charged particles in, and by tracking how they pass through a series of charged windows, they can sort them by type and energy.

FIELDS is another that gets the full heat of the sun. Its antennas are the ones sticking out from the sides — they need to in order to directly sample the electric field surrounding the craft. A set of “fluxgate magnetometers,” clearly a made-up name, measure the magnetic field at an incredibly high rate: two million samples per second.

They’re all powered by solar panels, which seems obvious, but actually it’s a difficult proposition to keep the panels from overloading that close to the sun. They hide behind the shield and just peek out at an oblique angle, so only a fraction of the radiation hits them.

Even then, they’ll get so hot that the team needed to implement the first-ever active water cooling system on a spacecraft. Water is pumped through the cells and back behind the shield, where it is cooled by, well, space.

The probe’s mission profile is a complicated one. After escaping the clutches of the Earth, it will swing by Venus, not to get a gravity boost, but “almost like doing a little handbrake turn,” as one official described it. It slows it down and sends it closer to the sun — and it’ll do that seven more times, each time bringing it closer and closer to the sun’s surface, ultimately arriving in a stable orbit 3.83 million miles above the surface — that’s 95 percent of the way from the Earth to the sun.

On the way it will hit a top speed of 430,000 miles per hour, which will make it the fastest spacecraft ever launched.

Parker will make 24 total passes through the corona, and during these times communication with Earth may be interrupted or impractical. If a solar cell is overheating, do you want to wait 20 minutes for a decision from NASA on whether to pull it back? No. This close to the sun even a slight miscalculation results in the reduction of the probe to a cinder, so the team has imbued it with more than the usual autonomy.

It’s covered in sensors in addition to its instruments, and an onboard AI will be empowered to make decisions to rectify anomalies. That sounds worryingly like a HAL 9000 situation, but there are no humans on board to kill, so it’s probably okay.

The mission is scheduled to last seven years, after which time the fuel used to correct the craft’s orbit and orientation is expected to run out. At that point it will continue as long as it can before drift causes it to break apart and, one rather hopes, become part of the sun’s corona itself.

The Parker Solar Probe is scheduled for launch early Saturday morning, and we’ll update this post when it takes off successfully or, as is possible, is delayed until a later date in the launch window.

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NASA’s Open Source Rover lets you build your own planetary exploration platform

Posted by | DIY, Education, Gadgets, Government, jpl, mars rover, NASA, robotics, science, Space | No Comments

Got some spare time this weekend? Why not build yourself a working rover from plans provided by NASA? The spaceniks at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have all the plans, code, and materials for you to peruse and use — just make sure you’ve got $2,500 and a bit of engineering know-how. This thing isn’t made out of Lincoln Logs.

The story is this: after Curiosity landed on Mars, JPL wanted to create something a little smaller and less complex that it could use for educational purposes. ROV-E, as they called this new rover, traveled with JPL staff throughout the country.

Unsurprisingly, among the many questions asked was often whether a class or group could build one of their own. The answer, unfortunately, was no: though far less expensive and complex than a real Mars rover, ROV-E was still too expensive and complex to be a class project. So JPL engineers decided to build one that wasn’t.

The result is the JPL Open Source Rover, a set of plans that mimic the key components of Curiosity but are simpler and use off the shelf components.

“I would love to have had the opportunity to build this rover in high school, and I hope that through this project we provide that opportunity to others,” said JPL’s Tom Soderstrom in a post announcing the OSR. “We wanted to give back to the community and lower the barrier of entry by giving hands on experience to the next generation of scientists, engineers, and programmers.”

The OSR uses Curiosity-like “Rocker-Bogie” suspension, corner steering and pivoting differential, allowing movement over rough terrain, and the brain is a Raspberry Pi. You can find all the parts in the usual supply catalogs and hardware stores, but you’ll also need a set of basic tools: a bandsaw to cut metal, a drill press is probably a good idea, a soldering iron, snips and wrenches, and so on.

“In our experience, this project takes no less than 200 person-hours to build, and depending on the familiarity and skill level of those involved could be significantly more,” the project’s creators write on the GitHub page.

So basically unless you’re literally rocket scientists, expect double that. Although JPL notes that they did work with schools to adjust the building process and instructions.

There’s flexibility built into the plans, too. So you can load custom apps, connect payloads and sensors to the brain, and modify the mechanics however you’d like. It’s open source, after all. Make it your own.

“We released this rover as a base model. We hope to see the community contribute improvements and additions, and we’re really excited to see what the community will add to it,” said project manager Mik Cox. “I would love to have had the opportunity to build this rover in high school, and I hope that through this project we provide that opportunity to others.”

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NASA’s 3D-printed Mars Habitat competition doles out prizes to concept habs

Posted by | 3d printing, Gadgets, Government, hardware, mars, NASA, science, Space | No Comments

A multi-year NASA contest to design a 3D-printable Mars habitat using on-planet materials has just hit another milestone — and a handful of teams have taken home some cold, hard cash. This more laid-back phase had contestants designing their proposed habitat using architectural tools, with the five winners set to build scale models next year.

Technically this is the first phase of the third phase — the (actual) second phase took place last year and teams took home quite a bit of money.

The teams had to put together realistic 3D models of their proposed habitats, and not just in Blender or something. They used Building Information Modeling software that would require these things to be functional structures designed down to a particular level of detail — so you can’t just have 2D walls made of “material TBD,” and you have to take into account thickness from pressure sealing, air filtering elements, heating, etc.

The habitats had to have at least a thousand square feet of space, enough for four people to live for a year, along with room for the machinery and paraphernalia associated with, you know, living on Mars. They must be largely assembled autonomously, at least enough that humans can occupy them as soon as they land. They were judged on completeness, layout, 3D-printing viability and aesthetics.

So although the images you see here look rather sci-fi, keep in mind they were also designed using industrial tools and vetted by experts with “a broad range of experience from Disney to NASA.” These are going to Mars, not paperback. And they’ll have to be built in miniature for real next year, so they better be realistic.

The five winning designs embody a variety of approaches. Honestly all these videos are worth a watch; you’ll probably learn something cool, and they really give an idea of how much thought goes into these designs.

Zopherus has the whole print taking place inside the body of a large lander, which brings its own high-strength printing mix to reinforce the “Martian concrete” that will make up the bulk of the structure. When it’s done printing and embedding the pre-built items like airlocks, it lifts itself up, moves over a few feet, and does it again, creating a series of small rooms. (They took first place and essentially tied the next team for take-home case, a little under $21K.)

AI SpaceFactory focuses on the basic shape of the vertical cylinder as both the most efficient use of space and also one of the most suitable for printing. They go deep on the accommodations for thermal expansion and insulation, but also have thought deeply about how to make the space safe, functional, and interesting. This one is definitely my favorite.

Kahn-Yates has a striking design, with a printed structural layer giving way to a high-strength plastic layer that lets the light in. Their design is extremely spacious but in my eyes not very efficiently allocated. Who’s going to bring apple trees to Mars? Why have a spiral staircase with such a huge footprint? Still, if they could pull it off, this would allow for a lot of breathing room, something that will surely be of great value during a year or multi-year stay on the planet.

SEArch+/Apis Cor has carefully considered the positioning and shape of its design to maximize light and minimize radiation exposure. There are two independent pressurized areas — everyone likes redundancy — and it’s built using a sloped site, which may expand the possible locations. It looks a little claustrophobic, though.

Northwestern University has a design that aims for simplicity of construction: an inflatable vessel provides the base for the printer to create a simple dome with reinforcing cross-beams. This practical approach no doubt won them points, and the inside, while not exactly roomy, is also practical in its layout. As AI SpaceFactory pointed out, a dome isn’t really the best shape (lots of wasted space) but it is easy and strong. A couple of these connected at the ends wouldn’t be so bad.

The teams split a total of $100K for this phase, and are now moving on to the hard part: actually building these things. In spring of 2019 they’ll be expected to have a working custom 3D printer that can create a 1:3 scale model of their habitat. It’s difficult to say who will have the worst time of it, but I’m thinking Kahn-Yates (that holey structure will be a pain to print) and SEArch+/Apis (slope, complex eaves and structures).

The purse for the real-world construction is an eye-popping $2 million, so you can bet the competition will be fierce. In the meantime, seriously, watch those videos above, they’re really interesting.

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SpaceX lands Falcon 9 booster on Just Read The Instructions drone ship

Posted by | booster, falcon, Falcon 9, Gadgets, science, Space, spacecraft, spaceflight, SpaceX, transport | No Comments

SpaceX confirmed on Twitter this morning that it recovered the booster from the latest Falcon 9 launch. Shortly after launching from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Southern California at 7:39AM ET this morning, the booster stage landed on the Just Read The Instructions drone ship. The company will now try to catch the rocket’s fairing with a giant net attached to the ship Mr. Stevens.

Despite challenging weather conditions, Falcon 9 first stage booster landed on Just Read the Instructions.

— SpaceX (@SpaceX) July 25, 2018

SpaceX has become more adept at landing its booster rockets but it’s still a spectacle every time it happens. This landing is extra special as the winds were gusting around the time of the launch.

The rocket company has so far been less successful with catching the payload shrouds. SpaceX’s high-speed recovery boat Mr. Steven took to the seas this time around with a larger net in the hopes of recovering the fairings. Reusing as much as possible is critical to SpaceX’s mission to lower the cost of space flight.

Today’s launch was SpaceX’s seventh mission for the company’s client Iridium who contracted with SpaceX to launch 75 satellites into orbit. According to SpaceX, today’s payload of Iridium satellites so far deployed without an issue. SpaceX is contracted for one more launch with Iridium.

This was SpaceX’s 14th launch of 2018.

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Watch Rocket Lab’s first commercial launch, ‘It’s Business Time’

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Rocket Lab, the New Zealand-based rocket company that is looking to further amplify the commercial space frenzy, is launching its first fully paid payload atop an Electron rocket tonight — technically tomorrow morning at the launch site. If successful, it will mark a significant new development in the highly competitive world of commercial launches.

Liftoff is planned for 2:10 in the morning local time in New Zealand, or 7:10 Pacific time in the U.S.; the live stream will start about 20 minutes before that.

The Electron rocket is a far smaller one than the Falcon 9s we see so frequently these days, with a nominal payload of 150 kilograms, just a fraction of the many tons that we see sent up by SpaceX. But that’s the whole point, Rocket Lab’s founder, CEO and chief engineer Peter Beck told me recently.

“You can go buy a spot on a big launch vehicle, but they’re not very frequent. With a small rocket you can choose your orbit and choose your schedule,” he said. “That’s what we’re driving at here: regular and reliable access to space.”

An Electron rocket launching during a previous test.

Just like not every car on the road has to be a big rig, not every rocket needs to be a Saturn V. 150 kilos is more than enough to fill with paying customers and cover the cost of launch. And Beck told me there is no shortage whatsoever of paying customers.

“The most important part of the mission is the timing in which we manifested it,” he explained (manifesting meaning having a payload added to the manifest). “We went from nothing manifested to a full payload in about 12 weeks.”

For comparison, some missions or payloads will wait literally years before there’s an opportunity to get to the orbit they need. Loading up just a few weeks ahead of time is unusual, to say the least.

Today’s launch will carry satellites from Spire, Tyvak/GeoOptics, students at UC Irvine, and High Performance Space Structure Systems; you can see the specifics of these on the manifest (PDF). It’s not the first time an Electron has taken a paid payload to orbit, but it is the first fully commercialized launch.

Rocket Lab has no ambitions for interplanetary travel, sending people to space, or anything like that. It just wants to take 150 kilograms to orbit as often as it can, as inexpensively as it can.

“We’re not interested in building a bigger rocket, we’re interested in building more of this one,” Beck said. “The vehicle is fully dialed in; we started from day one with this vehicle designed from a production approach. We’re fully vertically integrated, we don’t have any contractors, we do everything in house. We’ve been scaling up the factories enormously.”

“We’re looking for a one-a-month cadence this year, then next year one every two weeks,” he continued. “Frequency is the key — it’s the choke point in space right now.”

Ultimately the plan is to get a rocket lifting off every few days. And if you think that will be enough to meet demand, just wait a couple years.

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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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First launch of SpaceX’s revamped Falcon 9 carries Bangladesh’s space ambitions

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Today brings historic firsts for both SpaceX and Bangladesh: the former is sending up the final, highly updated revision of its Falcon 9 rocket for the first time, and the latter is launching its first satellite. It’s a preview of the democratized space economy to come this century.

Update: Success! The Falcon 9 first stage, after delivering the second stage to the border of space, has successfully landed on the drone ship Of Course I Still Love You, and Bangabandhu has been delivered to its target orbit.

You can watch the launch below:

Although Bangabandhu-1 is definitely important, especially to the nation launching it, it is not necessarily in itself a highly notable satellite. It’s to be a geostationary communications hub that serves the whole country and region with standard C-band and Ku-band connectivity for all kinds of purposes.

Currently the country spends some $14 million per year renting satellite time from other countries, something they determined to stop doing as a matter of national pride and independence.

“A sovereign country, in a pursuit of sustainable development, needs its own satellite in order to reduce its dependency on other nations,” reads the project description at the country’s Telecommunications Regulation Commission, which has been pursuing the idea for nearly a decade.

It contracted with Thales Alenia Space to produce and test the satellite, which cost about $250 million and is expected to last at least 15 years. In addition to letting the country avoid paying satellite rent, it could generate revenue by selling its services to private companies and nearby nations.

Bangabandhu-1 in a Thales test chamber.

“This satellite, which carries the symbolic name of the father of the nation, Bangabandhu, is a major step forward for telecommunications in Bangladesh, and a fantastic driver of economic development and heightened recognition across Asia,” said the company’s CEO, Jean-Loïc Galle, in a recent blog post about the project.

Bangabandhu-1 will be launching atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, but this one is different from all the others that have flown in the past. Designed with crewed missions in mind, it could be thought of as the production version of the rocket, endowed with all the refinements of years of real-world tests.

Most often referred to as Block 5, this is (supposedly) the final revision of the Falcon 9 hardware, safer and more reusable than previous versions. The goal is for a Block 5 first stage to launch a hundred times before being retired, far more than the handful of times existing Falcon 9s have been reused.

There are lots of improvements over the previous rockets, though many are small or highly technical in nature. The most important, however, are easy to enumerate.

The engines themselves have been improved and strengthened to allow not only greater thrust (reportedly about a 7-8 percent improvement) but improved control and efficiency, especially during landing. They also have a new dedicated heat shield for descent. They’re rated to fly 10 times without being substantially refurbished, but are also bolted on rather than welded, further reducing turnaround time.

The legs on which the rocket lands are also fully retractable, meaning they don’t have to be removed before transport. If you want to launch the same rocket within days, every minute counts.

Instead of white paint, the first stage will have a thermal coating (also white) that helps keep it relatively cool during descent.

To further reduce heat damage, the rocket’s “grid fins,” the waffle-iron-like flaps that pop out to control its descent, are now made of a single piece of titanium. They won’t catch fire or melt during reentry like the previous aluminum ones sometimes did, and as such are now permanently attached features of the rocket.

(SpaceX founder Elon Musk is particularly proud of these fins, which flew on the Falcon Heavy side boosters; in the briefing afterwards, he said: “I’m actually glad we got the side boosters back, because they had the titanium fins. If I had to pick something to get back, it’d be those.”)

Lastly (for our purposes anyway) the fuel tank has been reinforced out of concerns some had about the loading of supercooled fuel while the payload — soon to be humans, if all goes well — is attached to the rocket. This system failed before, causing a catastrophic explosion in 2016, but the fault has been addressed and the reinforcement should help further mitigate risk. (The emergency abort rockets should also keep astronauts safe should something go wrong during launch.)

The changes, though they contribute directly to reuse and cost reductions, are also aimed at satisfying the requirements of NASA’s commercial crew missions. SpaceX is in competition to provide both launch and crew capsule services for missions to the ISS, scheduled for as early as late 2018. The company needs to launch the Block 5 version of Falcon 9 (not necessarily the same exact rocket) at least 7 times before any astronauts can climb aboard.

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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

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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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EarthNow promises real-time views of the whole planet from a new satellite constellation

Posted by | accelerator, earthnow, Gadgets, Intellectual Ventures, OneWeb, Satellites, Space, Startups | No Comments

A new space imaging startup called EarthNow aims to provide not just pictures of the planet on demand, but real-time video anywhere a client desires. Its ambition is matched only by its pedigree: Bill Gates, Intellectual Ventures, Airbus, SoftBank and OneWeb founder Greg Wyler are all backing the play.

Its promise is a constellation of satellites that will provide video of anywhere on Earth with latency of about a second. You won’t have to wait for a satellite to come into range, or worry about leaving range; at least one will be able to view any area at any given time, so they can pass off the monitoring task to the next satellite over if necessary.

Initially aimed at “high value enterprise and government customers,” EarthNow lists things like storm monitoring, illegal fishing vessels (or even pirates), forest fires, whale tracking, watching conflicts in real time and more. Space imaging is turning into quite a crowded field — if all these constellations actually launch, anyway.

The company is in the earliest stages right now, having just been spun out from years of work by founder and CEO Russell Hannigan at Intellectual Ventures under the Invention Science Fund. Early enough, in fact, that there’s no real timeline for prototyping or testing. But it’s not just pie in the sky.

Wyler’s OneWeb connection means EarthNow will be built on a massively upgraded version of that company’s satellite platform. Details are few and far between, but the press release promises that “Each satellite is equipped with an unprecedented amount of onboard processing power, including more CPU cores than all other commercial satellites combined.”

Presumably a large portion of that will be video processing and compression hardware, since they’ll want to minimize bandwidth and latency but don’t want to skimp on quality. Efficiency is important, too; satellites have extremely limited power, so running multiple off-the-shelf GPUs with standard compression methods probably isn’t a good idea. Real-time, continuous video from orbit (as opposed to near-real-time stills or clips) is as much a software problem as it is hardware.

Machine learning also figures in, of course: the company plans to do onboard analysis of the imagery, though to what extent isn’t clear. It really makes more sense to me to do this on the ground, but perhaps a first pass by the satellite’s hardware will help move things along.

Airbus will do its part by actually producing the satellites, in Toulouse and Florida. The release doesn’t say how many will be built, but full (and presumably redundant) Earth coverage means dozens at the least. But if they’re mass-manufactured standard goods, that should keep the price down, relatively speaking anyway.

No word on the actual amount raised by the company in January, but with the stature of the investors and the high costs involved in the industry, I can’t imagine it’s less than a few tens of millions.

Hannigan himself calls EarthNow “ambitious and unprecedented,” which could be taken as an admission of great risk, but it’s clear that the company has powerful partners and plenty of expertise; Intellectual Ventures doesn’t tend to spin something off unless it’s got something special going. Expect more specifics as the company grows, but I doubt we’ll see anything more than renders for a year or so.

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