Thursday, April 27, 2006

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Mars Phoenix Lander

Natalie Godwin (818) 354-0850
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Dwayne Brown/Erica Hupp (202) 358-1726/1237
NASA Headquarters, Washington

News Release: 2006-066 April 26, 2006

Pieces of NASA'S Next Mars Mission are Coming Together

NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander, the next mission to the surface of Mars, is beginning a new phase in preparation for a launch in August 2007.

As part of this "assembly, test and launch operations" phase, Phoenix team members are beginning to add complex subsystems such as the flight computer, power systems and science instruments to the main structure of the spacecraft. The work combines efforts of Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver; the University of Arizona, Tucson; and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

"All the subsystems and instruments from a wide range of suppliers are tested separately, but now we are beginning the vital stage of assembling them together and testing how they will function with each other," said JPL's Barry Goldstein, project manager for Phoenix.

Phoenix will land near the red planet's north polar ice cap to analyze scooped-up samples of icy soil.

"We know there is plenty of water frozen into the surface layer of Mars at high latitudes. We've designed Phoenix to tell us more about this region as a possible habitat for life," said the University of Arizona's Peter Smith, principal investigator for the mission.

Phoenix is the first mission of NASA's Mars Scout Program of competitively proposed, relatively low-cost missions to Mars. The program is currently soliciting proposals for a 2011 Scout mission.

The Phoenix proposal, selected in 2003, saves expense by using a lander structure, subsystem components and protective aeroshell originally built for a 2001 lander mission that was canceled while in development. The budget for the Phoenix mission, including launch, is $386 million.

The spacecraft will land using descent thrusters just prior to touchdown, rather than airbags like those used by the current Mars Exploration Rovers. As Phoenix parachutes through Mars' lower atmosphere in May 2008, a descent camera will take images for providing geological context about the landing site.

The robotic arm being built for Phoenix will be about 2 meters (7 feet) long, jointed at the elbow and wrist, and equipped with a camera and scoop. It will dig as deep as about 50 centimeters (20 inches) and deliver samples to instruments on the spacecraft deck that will analyze physical and chemical properties of the ices and other materials. A stereo color camera will examine the landing site's terrain and provide positioning information for the arm. The Canadian Space Agency is providing a suite of weather instruments for Phoenix.

"The propulsion system and the wiring harness have been added to the vehicle," said Ed Sedivy, Phoenix program manager for Lockheed Martin. "We will be loading flight software onto the flight computer in the next few days. The flight software is much more mature than typical for a planetary program at this stage. As soon as the flight computer is mated up, we can apply external power to the vehicle."

Navigation components, such as star trackers, and communication subsystems will become part of the spacecraft in coming weeks, followed by science instruments in the summer.

Phoenix will be shipped to NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Florida, in May 2007, for final preparations leading up to launch. Before that, testing in Colorado will subject the spacecraft to expected operational environments. This includes thermal and vacuum tests simulating the 10-month trip to Mars and conditions on Mars' surface. Meanwhile, the mission is preparing a test facility in Tucson for practicing and testing procedures for operating the spacecraft on Mars.

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages Phoenix for NASA's Science Mission Directorate.For information about NASA and agency programs on the Web, visit . For information about the Phoenix Mission to Mars on the Web, visit


Moving from Shuttle to CEV is a Big Challenge

So says Michael Griffin, NASA administrator.

Moon Race!

Bring it on. A race and loss of prestige versus other countries is the only thing that will make Congress spend more money on space.

More money will speed up CEV

That makes sense. NASA is having to move money around to help pay for getting the Shuttle back on-line. Space Science is suffering as a result.

On the other hand I doubt Congress will go along. They are having too much fun paying for a bridge to nowhere.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Another way to control Lunar and Martian Dust

Instead of a magnet, use electricity.

They have a very interesting idea about how to keep solar cells clear of dust which has been a problem on Mars.

Neil Armstrong gets a Moon rock

Comet Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 Update

The pieces should be the brighest in mid-May.

Dark Vortex over the pole of Venus

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter press release

Guy Webster (818) 354-6278
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Dwayne Brown/Erica Hupp (202) 358-1726/1237
NASA Headquarters, Washington

News Release: 2006-055 April 13, 2006

Mars Cameras Debut as NASA Craft Adjusts Orbit

Researchers today released the first Mars images from two of the three science cameras on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Images taken by the orbiter's Context Camera and Mars Color Imager during the first tests of those instruments at Mars confirm the performance capability of the cameras. The test images were taken from nearly 10 times as far from the planet as the spacecraft will be once it finishes reshaping its orbit. Test images from the third camera of the science payload were released previously.

"The test images show that both cameras will meet or exceed their performance requirements once they're in the low-altitude science orbit. We're looking forward to that time with great anticipation," said Dr. Michael Malin of Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego. Malin is team leader for the context camera and principal investigator for the Mars Color Imager.

The cameras took the test images two weeks after the orbiter's March 10 arrival at Mars and before the start of "aerobraking," a process of reshaping the orbit by using controlled contact with Mars' atmosphere. This week, the spacecraft is dipping into Mars' upper atmosphere as it approaches the altitude range that it will use for shrinking its orbit gradually over the next six months.

The orbiter is currently flying in very elongated loops around Mars. Each circuit lasts about 35 hours and takes the spacecraft about 27,000 miles (43,000 kilometers) away from the planet before swinging back in close.

On Wednesday, a short burn of intermediate sized thrusters while the orbiter was at the most distant point nudged the spacecraft to pass from approximately 70 miles (112 kilometers) to within 66 miles (107 kilometers) of Mars' surface.

"This brings us well into Mars' upper atmosphere for the drag pass and will enable the mission to start reducing the orbit to its final science altitude," said Dan Johnston of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., deputy mission manager.

After hundreds of passes through the upper atmosphere, the drag will gradually reduce the far point of the orbit until the spacecraft is in a nearly circular orbit every two hours.

After the spacecraft gets into the proper orbit for its primary science phase, the six science instruments on board will begin their systematic examination of Mars. The Mars Color Imager will view the planet's entire atmosphere and surface every day to monitor changes in clouds, wind-blown dust, polar caps and other variable features.

Images from the Context Camera will have a resolution of 20 feet (6 meters) per pixel, allowing surface features as small as a basketball court to be discerned. The images will cover swaths 18.6 miles (30 kilometers) wide.

The Context Camera will show how smaller areas examined by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment Camera -- which will have the best resolution ever achieved from Mars orbit -- and by the mineral-identifying Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer fit into the broader landscape. It will also allow scientists to watch for small-scale changes, such as newly cut gullies, in the broader coverage area.

The new test images from the Context Camera and the Mars Color Imager are available online at , and .

For more detailed information about Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, see .

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is managed by JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, is the prime contractor.

Last Week's NASA press release on Mars Rovers

I'm a little behind...


Guy Webster (818) 354-6278
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Dwayne Brown/Erica Hupp (202) 358-1726/1237
NASA Headquarters, Washington

News Release: 2006-054 April 12, 2006

NASA Mars Rovers Head for New Sites After Studying Layers

NASA's Mars rover Spirit has reached a safe site for the Martian winter, while its twin, Opportunity, is making fast progress toward a destination of its own.

The two rovers recently set out on important -- but very different -- drives after earlier weeks inspecting sites with layers of Mars history. Opportunity finished examining sedimentary evidence of ancient water at a crater called "Erebus," and is now rapidly crossing flat ground toward the scientific lure of a much larger crater, "Victoria."

Spirit studied signs of a long-ago explosion at a bright, low plateau called "Home Plate" during February and March. Then one of its six wheels quit working, and Spirit struggled to complete a short advance to a north-facing slope for the winter. "For Spirit, the priority has been to reach a safe winter haven," said Dr. Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., principal investigator for the Mars Exploration Rover project.

The rovers have operated more than eight times as long as their originally planned three-month explorations on Mars. Each has driven more than 6.8 kilometers (4.2 miles) about 11 times as far as planned. Combined, they have returned more than 150,000 images. Two years ago, the project had already confirmed that at least one place on Mars had a wet and possibly habitable environment long ago. The scientific findings continue.

Opportunity spent most of the past four months at Erebus, a highly eroded impact crater about 300 meters (1,000 feet) in diameter, where the rover found extensive exposures of thin, rippled layering interpreted as a fingerprint of flowing water. "What we see at Erebus is a thicker interval of wetted sediment than we've seen anywhere else," said Dr. John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology, "The same outcrops also have cracks that may have formed from wetting and drying."

In mid-March, Opportunity began a 2-kilometer (1.6-mile) trek from Erebus to Victoria, a crater about 800 meters (half a mile) across, where a thick sequence of sedimentary rocks is exposed. In the past three weeks, Opportunity has already driven more than a fourth of that distance.

At Home Plate, Spirit found coarse layering overlain by finer layering in a pattern that fits accumulation of material falling to the ground after a volcanic or impact explosion. In one place, the layers are deformed where a golfball-size rock appears to have fallen on them while they were soft. "Geologists call that a 'bomb sag,' and it is strong evidence for some kind of explosive origin," Squyres said. "We would like to have had time to study Home Plate longer, but we needed to head for a north-facing slope before winter got too bad."

Spirit is in Mars' southern hemisphere, where the sun is crossing lower in the northern sky each day. The rovers rely on solar power. The amount available will keep dropping until the shortest days of the Mars winter, four months from now. To keep producing enough electricity to run overnight heaters that protect vital electronics, Spirit's solar panels must be tilted toward the winter sun by driving the rover onto north-facing slopes. However, on March 13 the right-front wheel's drive motor gave out. Spirit has subsequently driven about 80 meters (262 feet) using five wheels and dragging the sixth, but an initial route toward a large hill proved impassable due to soft ground. Last week, the team chose a smaller nearby ridge, dubbed "Low Ridge Haven," as the winter destination. Spirit reached the ridge Sunday and has a favorable 11-degree tilt toward the north.

"We have to use care choosing the type of terrain we drive over," Dr. Ashitey Trebi-Ollennu, a rover planner at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., said about the challenge of five-wheel driving. In tests at JPL, the team has been practicing a maneuver to gain additional tilt by perching the left-front wheel on a basketball-size rock.

Spending eight months or so at Low Ridge Haven will offer time for many long-duration studies that members of the science team have been considering since early in the mission, said Dr. Ray Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis, deputy principal investigator. These include detailed mapping of rocks and soils; in-depth determination of rock and soil composition; monitoring of clouds and other atmospheric changes; watching for subtle surface changes due to winds; and learning properties of the shallow subsurface by tracking surface-temperature changes over a span of months.

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the Mars Exploration Rover Project for the NASA Science Mission Directorate.

For images and information about the rovers, see or . For information about NASA and agency programs on the Web, visit .

Mars Rover Update

Mission Status:
Spirit has reached its probable winter haven. This will be the second winter it has spent on Mars. It only has five wheel motors working now, so it is going to take it easy until Spring brings more solar power. Meanwhile it can do 1 hour / day of remote sensing.

Opportunity is still driving towards Victoria Crater. This crater is much deeper than any it has examined so far, so there is great potential for seeing much more of Mars' geological history. It is 1557 meters away. Last week it drove 83 meters, so it may take a while to get there. In good conditions it can drive 100 meters / day.

Spirit Pictures:

Opportunity Pictures:

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Undersea Astronauts

I think these underwater missions are cool. I'm not sure about a doctor remote operating on me with a 2 second delay however...

How can China and the U.S. Cooperate in Space?

I just don't see the U.S. working that close with China. The U.S. is too afraid of technology transfer to China. So I stand by my predictions of a Space Race.

10th Planet smaller than first thought

I can't wait until the Pluto probe gets out there in 9 years...

then we'll have a much better idea of what these small planets are made of and how bright they are.

LCROSS Mission Update

This is the probe that is going to hit the Moon on purpose.

I hope it is big enough to see with amateur telescopes.

NASA says we need both human exploration and science

I agree, but I think NASA needs more money to make sure that both are successful.

Webb Space Telescope Contract awarded

Jane Platt (818) 354-0880
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Erica Hupp (202) 358-1237
NASA Headquarters, Washington

News Release: 2006-050 April 6, 2006

NASA Picks Contractor to Chill Space Telescope Instrument

NASA has awarded a subcontract to Northrop Grumman Space Technology in Redondo Beach, Calif., to develop an ultra-cold mechanical helium cryocooler for the Mid-Infrared Instrument on the James Webb Space Telescope. The contract totals about $22 million.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., is the U.S. partner in developing the instrument, along with a European consortium sponsored by the European Space Agency. With a planned 2013 launch, the Webb Space Telescope will study the earliest galaxies and some of the first stars formed after the Big Bang. The cryocooler delivery date is 2010.

The Mid-Infrared Instrument must be cooled to 6 Kelvin (minus 449 degrees Fahrenheit), much colder than the planned 40 Kelvin (minus 388 Fahrenheit) temperature of the Webb Space Telescope. This will allow the instrument to detect room temperature heat emitted by stars, galaxies and other objects.

Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., manages the James Webb Space Telescope for NASA. The California Institute of Technology in Pasadena manages JPL for NASA.

For more information about the James Webb Space Telescope, visit . More information about NASA and agency missions is at .


China's Space Plans

I predict there will be a new space race between the U.S. and China in the coming years.

That is the only way we will put up enough money to get to Mars in the next 50 years.

Jupiter and Saturn Auroras

Thursday, April 13, 2006

First pictures from Venus Probe

Mars Lander Pheonix Update

New Mercury Origin Theory

Magnetic Moon Dust

Crew Exploration Vehicle to be chosen Fall 2006

New Space Race: U.S. and China?

Pluto Probe Update

Virgin Galactic has collected $13 million so far for suborbital flight

Enceladus Update

Mars Rover pictures



Mars Rover Update

Mars Reconnaissance Oribiter Adjusting its Orbit

Guy Webster (818)354-6278
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Erica Hupp (202) 358-1237
NASA Headquarters, Washington

News Release: 2006-048 March 31, 2006

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Craft Begins Adjusting Orbit

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter yesterday began a crucial six-month campaign to gradually shrink its orbit into the best geometry for the mission's science work.

Three weeks after successfully entering orbit around Mars, the spacecraft is in a phase called "aerobraking." This process uses friction with the tenuous upper atmosphere to transform a very elongated 35-hour orbit to the nearly circular two-hour orbit needed for the mission's science observations.

The orbiter has been flying about 426 kilometers (265 miles) above Mars' surface at the nearest point of each loop since March 10, then swinging more than 43,000 kilometers (27,000 miles) away before heading in again. While preparing for aerobraking, the flight team tested several instruments, obtaining the orbiter's first Mars pictures and demonstrating the ability of its Mars Climate Sounder instrument to track the atmosphere's dust, water vapor and temperatures.

On Thursday, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter fired its intermediate thrusters for 58 seconds at the far point of the orbit. That maneuver lowered its altitude to 333 kilometers (207 miles) when the spacecraft next passed the near point of its orbit, at 6:46 a.m. Pacific time today (9:46 a.m. Eastern Time).

"We're not low enough to touch Mars' atmosphere yet, but we'll get to that point next week," said Dr. Daniel Kubitschek of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., deputy leader for the aerobraking phase of the mission.

The phase includes about 550 dips into the atmosphere, each carefully planned for the desired amount of braking. At first, the dips will be more than 30 hours apart. By August, there will be four per day.

"We have to be sure we don't dive too deep, because that could overheat parts of the orbiter," Kubitschek said. "The biggest challenge is the variability of the atmosphere."

Readings from accelerometers during the passes through the atmosphere are one way the spacecraft can provide information about upward swelling of the atmosphere due to heating.

The Mars Climate Sounder instrument also has the capability to monitor changes in temperature that would affect the atmosphere's thickness. "We demonstrated that we're ready to support aerobraking, should we be needed," JPL's Dr. Daniel McCleese, principal investigator for the Mars Climate Sounder, said of new test observations.

Infrared-sensing instruments and cameras on two other Mars orbiters are expected to be the main sources of information to the advisory team of atmospheric scientists providing day-to-day assistance to the aerobraking navigators and engineers. "There is risk every time we enter the atmosphere, and we are fortunate to have Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey with their daily global coverage helping us watch for changes that could increase the risk," said JPL's Jim Graf, project manager for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Using aerobraking to get the spacecraft's orbit to the desired shape, instead of doing the whole job with thruster firings, reduces how much fuel a spacecraft needs to carry when launched from Earth. "It allows you to fly more science payload to Mars instead of more fuel," Kubitschek said.

Once in its science orbit, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will return more data about the planet than all previous Mars missions combined. The data will help researchers decipher the processes of change on the planet. It will also aid future missions to the surface of Mars by examining potential landing sites and providing a high-data-rate communications relay.

Test observations from the Mars Climate Sounder, other images and additional information about Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter are available online at and at .

For information about NASA and agency programs on the Web, visit .

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, is the prime contractor for the project and built the spacecraft.