OSIRIS-REx captures first image of its target asteroid Bennu

Probe that will return asteroid surface samples to Earth will arrive at its target in three months.

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has taken its first image of asteroid Bennu, from which it will retrieve soil samples that will be sent back to Earth for analysis.

Launched in September 2016, NASA’s first probe to a near-Earth asteroid has traveled approximately 1.1 billion miles. It will arrive at Bennu in December of this year and fly by the asteroid’s poles and equator before entering orbit.

From a distance of 1.4 millon miles, the spacecraft’s PolyCam camera photographed its target on August 17.

“Right now, Bennu just looks like a star, a point source. That will change in November, when we begin detailed observations, and we’ll start seeing craters and boulders. You could say that’s when our asteroid will transition from being an astronomical object to an actual geological object,” said OSIRIS-REx working group lead and University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPL) staff scientist Carl Hergenrother.

Between now and the probe’s arrival date, its science instruments, which include a thermal spectrometer, a visible and infrared spectrometer, a laser altimeter, and an X-ray spectrometer, will gather data about Bennu.

Early flybys will occur at distances ranging from 4.4 to 11.8 miles above the asteroid’s surface, a challenging maneuver because Bennu is so small and has very weak gravity.

Based on the spacecraft’s studies of Bennu, the mission team will select two possible sample collection sites. Collection will occur in July 2020, followed by a return to Earth. The samples will be placed in a Sample Return Capsule, which the probe will eject to land in the Utah desert in September 2023.

“The story of this asteroid is the story of our solar system. When we understand Bennu, we will understand something fundamental about our solar system,” stated OSIRIS-REx Camera Suite (OCAMS) instrument scientist Bashar Rizk.

PolyCam, one of three cameras on the spacecraft,  is designed to function as both a long-range acquisition camera that will photograph Bennu on approach, and as a reconnaissance camera, which will take detailed images of Bennu once OSIRIS-REx arrives at its target.

After conducting a slingshot or gravity assist maneuver around the Earth last December to raise it to Bennu’s orbital plane, OSIRIS-REx has been traveling close to 32,000 miles per hour on its way to Bennu.

“Now that OSIRIS-REx is close enough to observe Bennu, the mission team will spend the next few months learning as much as possible about Bennu’s size, shape, surface features, and surroundings before the spacecraft arrives at the asteroid,” explained OSIRIS-REx principal investigator Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona.

“After spending so long planning for this moment, I can’t wait to see what Bennu reveals to us.”

JAXA proposes possible Hayabusa 2 landing sites on asteroid Ryugu

Asteroid’s terrain and structure make site selection more difficult than anticipated.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has selected possible landing sites for its Hayabusa 2 probe on the asteroid Ryugu, from which it will gather samples that will be returned to Earth for analysis.

Selection of the sites required modeling and analyzing the shape of the 9,843-foot- (3,000-meter-) wide asteroid, identifying temperatures at various locations, and determining the density of boulders on its surface.

“We learned that that asteroid is not friendly to us, so [landing is] not as easy as we had supposed when we were planning the mission,” said Masaki Fujimoto, director of solar system exploration at JAXA’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science.

During a day-long conference last week, JAXA officials announced a site designated L08 as its ideal landing location, with backup sites designated as L07 and M04. Additional, separate landing sites were given for Hayabusa 2’s MASCOT suite of science instruments and MINERVA-II-1, which holds two rovers that will be placed on Ryugu’s surface.

MASCOT carries an infrared spectrometer, a magnetometer, a radiometer, and a camera. The latter will image the distribution, structure, and texture of surface material.

All of the selected sites are flat regions located within 656 feet (200 meters) of the asteroid’s equator, have slopes less than 30 degrees, have flat regions with 328-foot (100-meter) diameters, contain boulders no higher than 20 inches (50 cm), and have temperatures below 206 degrees Fahrenheit (97 degrees Celsius).

These conditions are considered ideal for the size of Hayabusa 2’s sample device, its best operating temperature, and the direction of its solar panels.

Touchdown rehearsals for the 1,300-pound probe will be conducted on September 12 and in mid-October. Actual landing is currently planned for late October.

MINERVA-II-1 is scheduled to begin operations on September 20-21, followed by MASCOT on October 2-4.

After landing, the spacecraft will drill into Ryugu’s surface and collect subsurface samples in a capsule.

Studying Ryugu is valuable because the asteroid contains both water and the organic molecules that made up the building blocks of Earth.

Samples collected will be returned to Earth in late 2020.

Moon’s north and south poles contain water ice

New study of data collected a decade ago confirms signatures of water ice on the Moon’s poles.

An analysis of data collected by NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3) has found compelling evidence for water ice on the Moon’s north and south poles.

Led by Shuai Li of both the University of Hawaii and Brown University, and by Richard Elphic of NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, a team of scientists discovered three specific signatures of water ice in the reflectance spectra collected by M3.

Launched with India’s Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft in 2008, M3 successfully detected the reflective properties of water ice on surfaces in the Moon’s polar regions and also directly measured the method by which the water molecules absorb infrared light. The latter enables scientists to determine whether water discovered is in a solid, liquid, or gaseous state.

M3 studied the lunar surface between November 2008 and August 2009.

“Previous observations indirectly found possible signs of surface ice at the lunar south pole, but these could have been explained by other phenomena, such as unusually reflective lunar soil,” a NASA statement noted.

Signatures of water ice found in the new study are located within 20 degrees of the Moon’s north and south poles, regions that are among the lunar surface’s coldest and darkest locations.

More ice is present in the south polar region, mostly at the bottom of craters that are perpetually in shadow. In the north polar region, the water ice is thinner and more scattered.

Temperatures at the bottom of craters that never receive sunlight never exceed minus 250 degrees Fahrenheit, due to the Moon’s very small axial tilt.

While the Moon’s surface has significantly less water ice than the surfaces of Mercury or Ceres, the water ice it does have is a valuable resource for future human exploration and even colonization.

“With enough ice sitting at the surface–within the top few millimeters–water would possibly be accessible as a resource for future expeditions to explore and even stay on the Moon, and potentially easier to access than the water detected beneath the Moon’s surface,” the NASA statement indicated.

Findings of the study have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Spitzer telescope has been in space 15 years

Observatory is now in an extended mission through November 2019.

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, which observes in infrared wavelengths, has now been operating for 15 years and remains in good condition.

The observatory was launched on August 25, 2003, for a 2.5-year primary mission. Its high sensitivity and ability to observe in the infrared have enabled it to study some of the universe’s most distant galaxies, observe exoplanets, and make numerous discoveries, including Saturn’s largest known ring, stellar nurseries, massive galaxy clusters, and more.

While the telescope was not initially designed to study exoplanets, it has spent more than half its time doing so, noted Spitzer project manager Lisa Storrie-Lombardi of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

One of NASA’s four Great Observatories in space, Spitzer has successfully peered through dust to study star-forming regions, black holes, and massive galaxy clusters.

By observing light that traveled 13.4 billion years from ancient galaxies, scientists can view these galaxies as they appeared just 400 million years after the Big Bang.

“In its 15 years of operations, Spitzer has opened our eyes to new ways of viewing the universe. Spitzer’s discoveries extend from our own planetary backyard, to planets around other stars, to the far reaches of the universe. And by working in collaboration with NASA’s other Great Observatories, Spitzer has helped scientists gain a more complete picture of many cosmic phenomena,” said Paul Hertz, director of the Astrophysics Division at NASA’s Washington, DC, headquarters.

One particular Spitzer discovery that surprised scientists was its observation of young galaxies much larger than expected, indicating they formed very early in the history of the universe.

The telescope has also observed some of the most distant known exoplanets. It was instrumental in the discovery of the TRAPPIST-1 system, in which seven planets orbit close to one another, three of which are located in the star’s habitable zone, where temperatures allow liquid water to exist on their surfaces.

A key to the success of NASA’s four Great Observatories is each one’s ability to observe in different wavelengths. By combining all their observations, scientists have been able to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the universe.

“The Great Observatories program was really a brilliant concept. The idea of getting multi-spectral images or data on astrophysical phenomenon is very compelling, because most heavenly bodies produce radiation across the spectrum. An average galaxy like our own Milky Way, for example, radiates as much infrared light as visible wavelength light. Each part of the spectrum provides new information,” stated Spitzer project scientist Michael Werner, also of JPL.

InSight lander is now halfway to Mars

Tests indicate all its science instruments are healthy.

NASA’s Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) lander passed the halfway point between Earth and Mars on August 6, and tests of its science instruments indicate all are healthy and fully functional.

Launched on May 5 of this year, the lander is scheduled to touch down in Mars’s Elysium Planitia on November 26.

Mission scientists and engineers are testing software important for landing and surface operations. InSight’s highly sensitive science instruments will probe the planet’s deep interior.

Some of the instruments’ technology s being reused from NASA’s Phoenix Mars lander, which touched down on the Red Planet’s north polar region in 2008.

The lander is equipped with a seismometer, the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), which will explore Mars’s internal activity by measuring ground motions in a broad range of frequencies.

Another instrument, the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3), will burrow 10 to 16 feet (3 to 5 meters) to measure the amount of heat escaping from the planet. It will drill into the surface using a self-hammering mechanical mole connected to sensors via a science tether that will run from the mole to the surface.

To assure HP3 operates successfully, mission team members tested its main electronics, its sensors, its internal heaters, and its electronic settings.

A third science instrument, the Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment (RISE), will study changes in Mars’s rotation axis through InSight’s radio connection with Earth. This will provide scientists with important data about the composition of Mars’s core.

Mars’s rotation axis is believed to be less stable and more changeable than Earth’s because the Red Planet does not have a large moon to act as a stabilizer.

InSight’s cameras were found to be functioning well after taking a “selfie” of the spacecraft’s interior.

“If you are an engineer on InSight, that first glimpse of the heat shield blanket, harness tie-downs, and cover bolts is a very reassuring sight, as it tells us our Instrument Context Camera is operating perfectly. The next picture we plan to take with this camera will be the surface of Mars,” said InSight Project Manager Tom Hoffman of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

Current plans call for the cameras to photograph Elysium Planitia within minutes after landing.

Data returned by InSight is expected to help scientists better understand the processes that shaped the solar system’s rocky planets over four billion years ago.

Probe fails to detect water on asteroid Ryugu

Asteroid belongs to category of objects known to contain moisture in surface boulders.

The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA) Hayabusa2 spacecraft has not detected any evidence of water on the asteroid Ryugu.

Since arriving at the asteroid in June of this year, the probe has studied 54,000 spots on its surface. Among the data the spacecraft returned are close up images of surface boulders and ridges.

Ryugu is classed as a C-type asteroid, a category of asteroids that contain high levels of carbon and often have moisture in the boulders on their surfaces. Scientists would like to find evidence of such moisture on Ryugu, as the presence of water could make the asteroid habitable for microbial life.

Located 186.4 million miles (300 million km) from Earth, Ryugu, which rotates on its axis once every 7.5 hours and takes 474 days to orbit the Sun, is too small and distant for observers on Earth to see its surface details.

Mission scientists are not giving up on the possibility that evidence of water might still be found on Ryugu. The probe will continue studying the near-Earth asteroid for a year and a half, during which time it will drop four small rovers on Ryugu’s surface.

After identifying an ideal landing site, the spacecraft will touch down on the surface this fall, then create a hole in that surface for sample collection by firing a metal fragment into it.

Hayabusa2 is a sample return mission, meaning the probe will collect samples from the asteroid’s surface and subsurface and return them to Earth for analysis. It will leave Ryugu in December 2019 and arrive back on Earth with the samples a year later.

“There is a possibility that water  might be discovered after an artificial crater is created on its surface next spring,” said JAXA project member Kohei Kitazato, a professor of Earth and planetary science astronomy at the University of Aizu.

Even if no evidence of water is found on Ryugu, that does not mean it never had water. It is possible that surface water once was present but subsequently evaporated, possibly through interaction with light from the Sun.



New radio telescope images Galactic Center

World’s most sensitive radio telescope will one day be part of larger, intercontinental facility.

A new radio telescope described as the most sensitive of its kind in the world has captured an image of the Milky Way’s Galactic Center.

Located in South Africa, MEERKAT, an interferometer made up of 64 separate dishes designed to produce detailed maps of normally invisible regions of space, captured a panoramic view of the the Galactic Center using infrared, radio, and X-ray wavelengths, which enabled it to penetrate gas and dust that gets in the way of conventional telescopes.

The stunning image shows the sources of magnetized filament structures close to the galaxy’s central supermassive black hole, an image that could help scientists decipher the filaments’ origins.

MEERKAT is part of an even larger project, the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), a radio telescope that will be linked with 130 dishes in South Africa and as many as 130,000 antennas in Australia. The folding of MEERKAT into SKA is expected to begin in 2020.

Actual scientific experiments with the South-African funded $331 million MEERKAT are scheduled to begin in approximately two months.

Two MEERKAT research projects are already in progress. The first will use the telescope’s full capacity to study hydrogen levels in galaxies. Scientists believe data from this project will provide crucial insight into the universe’s history.

The second project will study fast radio bursts and similar, transient phenomena that are currently not well understood.

Future plans call for eight large survey projects to operate using MEERKAT, with each research team given a total of 1,000 hours on the telescope over a period of five years.

For many astronomers, engineers, and data scientists who would otherwise have to use instruments based in the US, Europe, or Australia for their research projects, MEERKAT provides an alternate, ideal option.

“With this new instrument, South Africa stands poised to be at the forefront of astronomy and data science. The anticipated success of the SKA relies heavily on MEERKAT,” noted SKA organization director-general Phil Diamond.

Michael Kramer, director of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, praised the early data returned by MEERKAT as “better than we expected.”

An article on MEERKAT’s imaging of the Galactic Center and plans for the telescope’s future has been published in the journal Nature.

Israel plans un-crewed Moon landing in 2019

Small, light craft scheduled for December launch on SpaceX rocket.

An Israeli non-profit organization, working in conjunction with a government-owned space corporation, plans to put a robotic lander on the Moon on February 13, 2019.

The joint project by SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) was initially intended for the Google Lunar X Prize competition, which Google ended March 31 with no winner after five teams experienced repeated launch delays, largely due to lack of funds.

Google had offered a $20 million prize to the first non-profit, privately-funded group to land a craft on the Moon, have it travel a minimum of 1,650 feet, and send high-definition photos and videos of the event back to Earth.

Like several of its competitors, including American teams Moon Express and Astrobotic, SpaceIL decided to continue pursuing the project without the prize. The non-profit has raised about $88 million in investments, largely from private donors, to develop and build its spacecraft.

Current plans call for SpaceIL’s lander to launch as a secondary payload on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in December.

After launch, the lander will first enter into an elliptical orbit around the Earth. Once there, mission control will command it to raise itself to a much higher Earth orbit, also elliptical. From this location, it will approach the Moon, igniting its engines to enter lunar orbit before touching down on the lunar surface.

All of these tasks will be carried out autonomously through the lander’s navigation control system.

Weighing just 1,322 pounds (600 kilograms), the lander will be the lightest and smallest spacecraft to land on the Moon. If the landing is successful, the lander will follow up by using a magnetometer to measure the Moon’s magnetic field as well as take photos and videos.

Should the mission succeed, it will make Israel the fourth country to land a vehicle on the Moon’s surface, following Russia, the United States, and China.

Representatives of SpaceIL hope the project will inspire students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math, much like the Apollo program did during the 1960s and 1970s.

Delays in commercial crew program problematic for ISS

Government report advises NASA to develop contingency plans in the event deadlines aren’t met.

Both Boeing and SpaceX, companies with which NASA contracted to transport astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2019, could face delays of a year or more in obtaining agency certification for their vehicles, causing a gap in space station supply missions and astronaut transport.

Current schedules specify both companies will conduct un-crewed test flights in August of this year and crewed test flights shortly after, with Boeing’s scheduled for November and SpaceX’s for December.

Meeting these deadlines would enable both companies to be certified to fly astronauts to the ISS in early 2019–Boeing in January and SpaceX in February.

However, a report issued July 11 by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) expresses concern that both companies could miss the deadline for certification by at least a year. NASA’s contract with Russia for transportation of astronauts to and from the ISS via Soyuz capsules expires at the end of 2019, potentially leaving a gap with no supply missions or means of ferrying astronauts.

“Boeing and SpaceX continue to make progress developing a capability to fly to the ISS, but both have continued to experience delays. Additional delays could also disrupt US access to the ISS,” the report states.

NASA’s latest risk analysis predicts Boeing will be certified in December 2019 and SpaceX in January 2020. But these dates are estimates, and further delays could postpone both companies’ certifications to the fall of 2020.

Emphasizing the potential gap in access to the ISS, the GAO report advises NASA to develop a contingency plan for ISS access should the current deadlines not be met.

“If NASA does not develop options for ensuring access to the ISS in the event of further commercial crew delays, it will not be able to ensure that the US policy goal and objective for the ISS will be met,” the report notes.

NASA is already considering several options for dealing with the possible delays. One is extending Soyuz transport of astronauts until the end of 2020. Another is extending the crewed demonstration flights and prolonging astronauts’ stay on the space station by several months.

According to the GAO report, NASA has continued to insist the initial deadlines will be met by both Boeing and SpaceX even though the companies admit delays are likely.

NASA agreed to recommendations made in the report, including developing a contingency plan for ISS access by the end of this year, documenting its risk tolerance level for crew safety, and separating the job of managing commercial crew safety from that of independent safety oversight.

Scientists examine Voyager-1 data in search of dark matter particles

Voyager’s pristine cosmic ray data is allowing researchers to form the bounds of the cosmos’ dark matter.

NASA’s Voyager-1 spacecraft is sending back cosmic ray data that has allowed researchers to better understand the cosmos’ exotic dark matter, reports Bruce Dorminey for Forbes Magazine. What they found was that analysis of the spacecraft’s cosmic ray detections beyond the heliopause (where the solar wind’s influence ends and the flux of low energy galactic cosmic rays begins), provided no evidence of dark matter. The researchers theorized that if dark matter was present, they would have found a higher density of lower energy cosmic rays in the data.

Caltech physicist Alan Cummings, who is part of the Voyager science team, explains that Voyager’s cosmic ray detector was designed specifically to look for galactic cosmic rays—low-energy cosmic rays that can only be detected outside our solar system. While most scientists believe cosmic rays originate within supernova remnants, some are thought to be related to dark matter. These rays—charged elemental particles that sometimes move at velocities approaching that of light—are helping researchers understand dark matter’s lower mass limits. The idea is that at least some dark matter particles present in the galaxy will annihilate into particle-antiparticle pairs, Dorminey writes—however, this is rare.

Scientists have proposed that dark matter could be made of microscopic black holes. A microscopic black hole would be no bigger than a nucleus of the element Xenon, explains Pierre Salati, a physicist at France’s Laboratoire d’Annecy-le-Vieux de Physique théorique. Researchers hoped that analyzing the new Voyager data to look for the evaporation of black holes emitting cosmic rays would be observable. But it wasn’t, leading Salati to conclude that these cosmic rays may not exist. “The idea is that the black holes evaporate and that evaporation emits cosmic rays,” he said. Despite the lack of evidence, researchers still plan to analyze data sent back from Voyager as long as possible.