Category: Missions (page 1 of 14)

After Seven Years Away Exploring an Asteroid, OSIRIS-REx is Landing Soon with Precious Samples

A replica of the OSIRIS-REx sample return capsule descends under parachute during a dress rehearsal Aug. 30 in Utah. (NASA/Keegan Barber)

Bits of pebbles and dust from the asteriod Bennu that were collected during the long journey of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft should be landing in the Utah desert later this month.

The delivery will be a first for NASA — its first sample return from an asteroid and one of a very small handful of space objects ever brought to Earth by humans from anywhere but the moon.

The roughly two ounces (60 grams) of regolith collected from the surface of Bennu — a 4.5 billion year old remnant of the early solar system — are expected to give new insights into how our solar system planets were formed and about the mix of organic compounds present when life began on Earth.

The landing will be the finale to a quite remarkable 4.7 million mile journey to, around and onto a tiny ball of dirt, gravel and pebbles, and then back to Earth.  The spacecraft studied the asteroid from close orbit for almost two years before making its hazardous touch-and-go attempt to scoop up some regolith.

Though successful, that contact was a lot more fraught than expected.  The asteroid is held together by only very week gravitational forces, the scientists found, and it nearly swallowed OSIRIS-REx as a swamp would, kicking up a wall of debris into space that threatened the spacecraft’s safety.

Now comes the final challenge of the return capsule drop-off.  Once on Earth, the samples will go to  NASA’s Johnson Space Center for curating, examining and ultimately distributing to scientists for their long-awaited chance to learn up close about a celestial body untouched by the teeming biosphere of Earth.

The steroid Bennu, as imaged from about 15 miles away by OSIRIS-REx, the Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer. (NASA)

The returning asteroid sample from Bennu is not the first of its kind to be flown to Earth — that honor goes to the Hayabusa and Hayabusa2 spacecraft sent by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.  They returned with bits of dust and soil from two other asteroids, Ryugu (2020) and Itokawa (2010.)

Like Bennu, Ryugu is a carbonaceous asteroid, with a material makeup that includes substantial carbon.  These are the type of asteroid most common in the solar system and of the most interest to space scientists since they generally contain the organic (i.e,… Read more

The Moon Rush Is On. Are We on Earth Ready For That?

Researchers and policy-makers are homing in on sites for the Artemis Base Camp that feature long-duration access to sunlight, direct-to-Earth communication and gentle slopes, and also offer access to permanently shadowed regions that may contain water ice.  (NASA)

An Indian spacecraft landed on the moon this month and a pioneering Japanese lunar  lander is awaiting an imminent launch.  A Russian craft trying to land in the same area — the southern polar region — recently crashed, as did a private effort by a joint Japanese-United Arab Emirates group and one by several Israeli companies.

A Chinese rover has been exploring the far side of the moon for numerous years now, and China completed a lunar robotic sample return mission.  The South Korean space agency is also planning its own lunar rover for the moon, as are a number of private companies.

Then there is NASA, and numerous partners, which are preparing the Artemis mission to ultimately set up a significant long-term presence on the moon, starting with a human mission in 2025 and followed by many others.  The Chinese and Russian governments, are planning for a lunar settlement in 2030s as well, again with partners.

Alongside the Artemis program are numerous commercial but NASA-sponsored Commercial Lunar Payload Services missions to the moon from little-known companies such as Astrobotic Technology, Moon Express and Firefly Aerospace.  Their goal is to both explore and ultimately set up an infrastructure that can support long-term stays on the moon.  Some private companies also have their own lunar landing plans.

The world has never seen such a global push to land on the moon, to explore and to very explicitly learn to extract and use its resources.  It is no coincidence that many upcoming missions are to the southern polar region, where earlier lunar orbital missions found substantial stores of liquid ice as well as ridges where the sun always shines — making them ideal for setting up solar panels.

“Just within the next four years, we expect to see at least 22 lunar surface missions,” Gabriel Swiney of NASA’s Office of Technology, Policy and Strategy, recently wrote. “Half of these missions will occur in the Moon’s south polar region.”

Technology to mine and otherwise use the moon is also being tested around the world and hundreds of space companies are actively working on this and related technology.

View of Earth rising over the lunar horizon, taken in 1968 by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders.

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Getting To Know Rogue Planets

This artist’s concept shows an icy  Earth-mass rogue planet drifting through space alone, without any relationship to a star. (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)

In our Earthling minds, planets exist in solar systems with a Sun in the middle and objects large and small orbiting around it.   This is hardly surprising since planets are pretty much exclusively illustrated in solar systems and, until the onset of the 21st century, no other kind of planet had been identified.

That changed in the last two decades with the discovery of “rogue planets” very large and now quite small — all apparently isolated object speeding through interstellar space and unattached to any Sun or solar system.

The earliest rogue planets identified were large Jupiter-type planets or even larger brown dwarfs, which have masses between that of a large Jupiter and a small star.

But since then smaller planets have been discovered while the estimated population size of rogue planets has ballooned.

Now, new research from NASA and Japan’s Osaka University suggests that rogue planets untethered to a star far outnumber planets that orbit stars in the Milky way.

These results imply that NASA’s Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, set to launch by 2027 with a goal to identify rogue planets, could find hundreds of the Earth-mass variety. Indeed, this new study has already identified one such candidate.

“We estimate that our galaxy is home to 20 times more rogue planets than stars – trillions of worlds wandering alone,” said David Bennett, a senior research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and a co-author of two papers describing the results.

“We found that Earth-size rogues are more common than more massive ones,” said Takahiro Sumi, a professor at Osaka University in Japan and lead author of the paper with a new estimate of our galaxy’s rogue planets.

The roughly Earth-mass rogue planet the team found marks the second discovery of its kind. The paper describing the finding will appear in a future issue of The Astronomical Journal. A second paper, which presents a demographic analysis that concludes that rogue planets are six times more abundant than worlds that orbit stars in our galaxy, will be published in the same journal.

Because of their location outside of solar systems and away from a warming Sun, rogue planets are considered quite unlikely to harbor life.  But with that diverse population of rogue planets, Sumi said,  they can play an important role in understanding planets generally.… Read more

The Mars Water Story Takes an Important New Turn in Jezero Crater

A mosiac made of 203 individual images taken by Perseverance showing the fossilized remains of what was  likely once a strong and wild river in Jezero Crater.  Named Skrinkle Haven after a site in Wales, this river is the most powerful identified so far by Mars rovers.  (NASA/JPL

The central and ever-surprising story of water on ancient Mars took a new turn recently when NASA announced that the Perseverance rover had found the fossil remains of a once-powerful river in Jezero Crater.

From the nature and patterns of the riverbed turned to stone, to the ways that grains of sand and rocks been moved, textured and deposited and to the features of the surrounding landscape,  the rover science team came go a speedy conclusion:  This was a Mars river of substance.  It carried substantial tonnages of sediment and rocks of some size, and laid down deep layers of sediment.

“We’re seeing what looks like the result of sudden, abrupt, high-energy inflow of water, carrying a lot of debris,” said Libby Ives, a postdoctoral fellow at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). “This was no tiny stream; it was a pretty big channel.”

But there’s more.  The river was not only powerful it was also deep — especially where it apparently emptied into a large lake.  This was a very different kind of water environment at ancient Jezero than what the previous NASA rover, Curiosity, found in Gale Crater.

“At Gale, you could wade through the water we found evidence for,” said Kathryn Stack Morgan, deputy science lead for Perseverance and formerly a member of the Curiosity science team.

“Here, we’re talking about scuba diving. This was really surprisingly deep.”

Jezero crater once held a large lake, fed by wide and deep channels. Those large channels then spread and distributary channels (rivers) were carved.  The strong and fast-moving river recently identified by the Perseverance team is near the crater hole in the center of the image.  The wide fossil waterway going from left to upper right is called Nerevta Vallis. (NASA/JPL/JHUAPL/MSSS/Brown University)

Mars scientists have long observed via orbiting satellites what they concluded were deep rivers on Mars.  The area around the recently discovered riverbed actually had features that were interpreted from orbit to form a likely riverbed — part of a network of waterways that flowed into Jezero.

But Stack said that having the rover directly on the ancient riverbed, to have it observing and analyzing a substantial river that once existed, is a very different experience.… Read more

Destination: Europa

An artist rendering of Europa Clipper over Europa. The spacecraft is scheduled to launch in fall 2024.  (NASA/JPL)


These are the words broadcast by the computer HAL as recounted in Arthur C. Clarke’s book “2010: Odyssey Two,” the sequel to the iconic “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

The message had been delivered to the computer by the non-corporeal David Bowman (the focus of the “2001”), but more accurately from the energy-based aliens who control the fate of Bowman, the famous monoliths and much more.  The aliens had concluded that Europa, with its subsurface ocean, could support life with the potential to evolve, and so they wanted the Jovian moon to be protected from meddling by humans or anyone else.

Clarke’s “Odyssey Two” was released in 1982, when Europa was not exactly a front-burner destination for NASA or anyone else.

But much has changed, and Clarke’s early focus on Europa as the most potentially habitable object in the solar system has been embraced by NASA and others for some time.

Surface features of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa are revealed in an image obtained by Juno’s Stellar Reference Unit (SRU) during the spacecraft’s flyby in 2022.  The spacecraft came within 219 miles of the moon.

While the fictional admonition not to land on Europa is (for now, a least) being respected,  the pull of Europa has become enormously strong.


The NASA spaceship Juno recently performed a flyby of the moon and took some revealing new photos. (See above.)

Just last month, the European Space Agency launched the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE)  spacecraft that is headed to Jupiter and three Jovian moons, including Europa.

And now all the parts and instruments of NASA’s Europa Clipper are in a Jet Propulsion Lab clean room for assembly in preparation for an October, 2024 launch. The Clipper will not land on Europa, but it will get closer than any other spacecraft has come.

So while it won’t be until the early 2030s that JUICE and the Clipper have their close encounters with Europa, the moon is very much on the front burner now for astrobiologists, planetary scientists and space (and science fiction) aficionados of all kinds.

This composite includes the four largest moons of Jupiter which are known as the Galilean satellites. These moons were first identified by the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei in 1610.

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The Strange Interstellar Object Oumuamua Was a Comet and Not The Space Probe Some Had Proposed

New research concludes that the interstellar object that entered our solar system and then rocketed out was a small comet and not a spacecraft, as some had speculated. (JPL/NASA)

In 2017, an  unusual small object flew into our solar system from afar,  approached the inner solar system and the Sun and then sped back out to interstellar space.  In all, it was detected and followed for 11 days.

The object was puzzling because such interstellar visitors had not been observed before, and most mysterious because it accelerated in a most unusual way out of the solar system.  This was not the normal behavior of any object in the solar system.

The object, a few hundred meters in length, was first identified as an asteroid because it had not of the sparkle of a comet, and a “dark comet” was proposed, and  then  something perhaps sent by aliens to explore the solar system.  After all, the shape of the object known as ‘Oumuamua — Hawaiian for “Scout”– was described as reddish and sometimes shaped like a pancake and sometimes like a cigar.

‘Oumuamua became an object of great fascination among space scientists and even became the subject a popular book by a Harvard astronomer who argued that it was clearly an alien lightsail. That is, a probe that is propelled by the propulsive radiation of starlight itself.

Now, a paper offers a very different, and apparently quite compelling, explanation.,

In Nature, University of California, Berkeley astrochemist Jennifer Bregner and Cornell University astronomer Darryl propose that the comet’s mysterious deviations from a typical object’s path around the Sun can be explained by a simple physical mechanism likely common among many icy comets: outgassing of hydrogen as the comet warmed up in the sunlight.

What made ‘Oumuamua different from every other well-studied comet in our solar system was its size. It was so small that the gravitational nudge it received around the Sun was slightly altered by the tiny push created when hydrogen gas spurted out of the ice.

And that’s what caused the acceleration, the scientists say.

An artist rendering of ‘Oumuamua, the first known alien object to enter our solar system. It was identified by the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope in Hawaii. It was later followed by observatories around the world and astronomers generally concluded that it had been traveling for millions of years before its chance encounter with our solar system.

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What Would Happen If Our Solar System Had a Super-Earth Like Many Others? Chaos.

Our solar system’s rocky planets are tiny compared with the larger gas and ice giants. Exoplanet research has found, however, that the most common planets in the galaxy appear to be super-Earths and sub-Neptunes, types of planets not found in our system. Size comparison of the planets. (Alexaldo/iStock/Getty)

Before astronomers began to find planets — many, many planets — orbiting Suns other than ours,  the scientific consensus was that if other solar systems were ever found they would probably look much like ours.  That would mean small, rocky planets closest to the Sun and large gaseous planets further out.

That assumption crash and burned with the discovery of the first discovery of an exoplanet orbiting a star — 51 Peg.  It was a hot, Jupiter-sized planet that circled its Sun in four days.

That planetary rude awakening was followed by many others, including the discovery of many rocky planets much larger than those in our system which came to be called  super-Earths.  And equally common are gaseous planets quite a bit smaller than any near us, given the name sub-Neptunes.

Many papers have been written theorizing why there are no super-Earth or sub-Neptunes in our solar system.  And now astrophysicist Stephen Kane of the University of California, Riverside has taken the debate another direction by asking this question:  What would happen to our solar system planets if a super-Earth or sub-Neptune was present?

The results of his dynamic computer simulations are not pretty: the orbits of many of our planets would change substantially and that would ultimately result in some being kicked out of the solar system forever.  The forces of orbit-transforming gravity set loose by the addition of a super-Earth are strong indeed.

The term super-Earth is a reference only to an exoplanet’s size – larger than Earth and smaller than Neptune – but not suggesting they are necessarily similar to our home planet. The true nature of these planets, such as Gliese 832c, above, remains ambiguous because we have nothing like it in our own solar system. Super-Earths they are common among planets found so far in our galaxy. (Planetary Habitability Laboratory/University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo)

Let’s go back to our actual solar system for some context.

The gap in size between the size of our terrestrial planets and giant gas planets is great. The largest terrestrial planet is Earth, and the smallest gas giant is Neptune, which is four times wider and 17 times more massive than Earth.… Read more

A Scientific Bonanza From Asteroid Ryugu and Hayabusa2

Optical microscope images of six particle samples that were selected from what Hayabusa2 brought back to Earth from asteroid Ryugu. {Japan Aerospace Expedition Agency (JAXA), Science.}

Collecting and transporting back to Earth samples of other planets, moons, asteroids and comets is extremely difficult, costly and time-consuming.  But as just-released papers based on Japan’s Hayabusa2 sample return mission to the asteroid Ryugu make abundantly clear, the results can be fabulous.

In a series of articles in the journal Science, scientists who studied the samples (which were returned to Earth in late 2020) and commentators marvel at the opportunity to study material that was formed as the solar system itself formed — more than 4.5 billion years ago.

The sample contains thousands of different organic (carbon-based) molecules of different kinds, including amino acids and a range of aromatic hydrocarbons.  There are also many minerals formed in the presence of water.

This composition was not a big surprise based on other similar carbon-based meteorites that have fallen to Earth. But they were totally clean samples that were in no way contaminated by life and  physical conditions on our planet. They also had not made the fiery passage through our atmosphere before landing and becoming a meteorite that someone may chance to find.

What they are, then, are pristine examples of the early solar system — solar system baby pictures — with the chemistry and physical thumbprints of the solar nebula and interstellar space from which our Sun and solar system were formed.

The asteroid Ryugu at 30 miles, as photographed by Hayabusa2.  Ryugu is a near-Earth asteroid, far from the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.   (JAXA, University of Tokyo and collaborators)

The return capsule brought back about 10 grams of the asteroid.  That might not seem like a lot, but it was more than enough to learn a great deal about an important asteroid from an ancient asteroid family.

As Hiroshi Naraoka of Kyushu University and his colleagues conclude in their Ryugu paper, “Meteorites made of material similar to Ryugu may have delivered amino acids and other prebiotic organic molecules to the early Earth and other rocky planets — providing the building blocks of life.”

Ryugu provides the best chance to date to study what precisely could have been delivered.

Hayabusa2 touchdown on asteroid Ryugu in 2019. (JAXA)

The studies together tell the history of Ryugu, its history and its composition. Read more

New Martian Surprise From The Curiosity Rover

NASA researchers found that waves on the surface of a shallow lake in Gale Crater stirred up sediment billions of years ago. That sediment eventually creating rippled textures left in rock. (NASA/JPLVCaltech/MSSS)

In its more than a decade of exploring Gale Crater on Mars, the rover Curiosity has found innumerable signs of the presence of long-ago water.

There have been fossil streams, alluvial fans, lakes shallow and deep, deltas and countless examples of rocks infiltrated and chemically transformed in the presence of water.  The picture of the crater as a watery environment in the warmer and wetter days of Martian history — 4 billion to 3 billion years ago — is well established.

Nonetheless. it still came as a wonder that the rover came across the entirely unexpected remains of fossilized ripples in a shallow lake bed.  What was even more surprising is that it was found in an area previously determined to have little likelihood of having ever been wet.

“Billions of years ago, waves on the surface of a shallow lake stirred up sediment at the lake bottom, over time creating rippled textures left in rock,” NASA said in a statement last week.

It was the first time such a feature has been discovered in Gale Crater, although the rover has passed through numerous fossil lake beds.

The Marker Band is a continuous dark, thin and hard layer running from left to right (but thinning out on the left) setting off the region of the rippled rock bed.   Both its composition and origins are not well understood. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

One of the mission’s main goals has been to find out if this area in the southern highlands of Mars might have once been habitable for microbial life.

It was determined within the first two years of the rover’s time in Gale Crater that the crater was indeed once habitable based on the past presence of significant amounts of water and chemicals left behind by that long-departed water. Understanding the crater’s history of water has been a central goal of the mission.

The Curiosity team was thrilled by their new find.

“This is the best evidence of water and waves that we’ve seen in the entire mission,” said Curiosity project scientist Ashwin Vasavada. “We climbed through thousands of feet of lake deposits and never saw evidence like this.”

The rippled fossils are in an area set off by a black, hard-rock line called the “Marker Band.”… Read more

Tantalizing Organic Compounds Found on Mars

The NASA/ESA Perseverance rover on xxx. New findings tell of the presence of organic material — the building blocks of life — in several locations at Jezero Crater — for the first time found in igneous rock.  The long-ago environment when the organics were deposited were deemed to have been “habitable.” (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

When searching for signs of ancient life on Mars, NASA scientists increasingly focus on organic material — the carbon-based compounds that are the building blocks of life.  Organics were found by the Curiosity rover in Gale Crater, and now new papers report they have also been identified by the instruments of the Perseverance rover in very different kinds of rock in Jezero Crater.

Unlike the Gale Crater organics that were found in sedimentary rocks, these newly found specimens are in igneous rocks — formed when molten rock cools and crystallizes — and are mixed with other compounds known to preserve organics well.

These rock samples are part of the NASA and European Space Agency Mars Sample Return mission, and so they could be brought to Earth in the future for more intensive study. Scientists are excited about what might some day be found.

The new findings about organics and the geology of Jezero Crater are part of a trio of articles in the journal Science published Wednesday.

The lead author of one of the papers, Michael Tice of Texas A&M University, gave this overview of what the Perseverance team is reporting:

“These three papers show that samples collected in the floor of Jezero should be able to tell us a lot about whether living organisms ever inhabited rocks under the surface of the crater over the past several billion years,”  he wrote to me.

The paper he led, Tice said, shows that small amounts of water passed through those rocks at three different times, and that conditions at each of those times could have supported life. “Even more importantly, minerals were formed from the water that are known to be able to preserve organic matter and even fossils on Earth.”

Different kinds of carbon-based organic compounds were viewed within a rock called “Garde” by SHERLOC, one of the instruments on the end of the robotic arm aboard the Perseverance rover. The rover used its drill grind away a patch of rock so that SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals) could analyze its interior.

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