Category: Missions (page 1 of 10)

Touching the Sun

An illustration of NASA’s Parker Solar Probe flying past the sun. The spacecraft has a carbon-carbon heat shield (carbon fibers in a carbon matrix) that can protect it from temperatures of up to 2500 F, about the melting point of steel.  (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)

The Parker Solar Probe is the stuff of superlatives and marvels.

Later this week, it will pass but 5.3 million miles from the sun — much closer than Mercury or any other spacecraft  have ever come — and it will be traveling at a top speed of 101 miles per second, the fastest human-made object ever created.

It’s designed to withstand temperatures of 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit and solar radiation 475 times the intensity at Earth orbit.

And as it reaches its perihelion, or closest pass of this orbit, it will be on only its 10th of 24 planned progressively closer solar passes.  In the years ahead, it will ultimately skim into the upper corona, the atmosphere of charged and unimaginably hot plasma that surrounds the sun and other stars.  The Parker Probe will, quite literally, touch the sun.

Something rather awe-inspiring to think about this coming Sunday, when the next pass takes place.

The mission, however, surely does not have record-setting as its goal.  Rather, those records are necessary to achieve the scientific goals — to fly close enough to the sun to understand how and where the gravity-defying force of the “solar wind” originates; to determine the structure and dynamics of the magnetic fields and switchbacks that are hotly debated as a possible source of that solar wind; and to resolve the mystery of why the sun’s corona is unexpectedly hotter than the solar “surface” below it.

“Parker Solar Probe is already telling us many important things about the sun that we didn’t know,” said Nour Raouafi, Parker Solar Probe project scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland.  “We are definitely getting closer to understanding some of the big questions we had before, such as the source of the solar wind.  But we have to be mindful that in whatever we find, the Sun is always changing.”

And incidently, he said, more than 99.9 percent of all the matter in our solar system is in and around the sun.


Solar wind activity at different scales as imaged by the Parker Probe’s Wide-field Imager (WISPR) instrument earlier this year during.
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Metal Mini-Asteroids Detected Passing Near Earth, Offering Potentially Great Science and Maybe Future Mining

An artist impression of a close flyby of the metal-rich Near-Earth asteroid 1986 DA. Astronomers using the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility have confirmed that the asteroid is made of 85% metal. (Addy Graham/University of Arizona)

Metal asteroids offer something rare in the solar system — the core of a planet without all the rock that normally surrounds it.

Since it is impossible to directly examine a planetary or lunar core if the parent body remains intact, metal-rich asteroids where the upper mantle and crust layers have been lost to a cataclysmic crash offer a potential path to, in effect, peek inside the depths (and deep time) of an object.

The asteroid Psyche is such an object, and that’s why NASA approved a mission to the asteroid that is scheduled to launch next year.  Orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter in the largest asteroid belt, Psyche appears to be the exposed nickel-iron core of an early planet, and as such reveals the early evolution of our solar system.

But Psyche is not the only metal-rich asteroid known to astronomers, and it certainly is not the closest.

Two much smaller “mini-Pysches” have been detected that are also comprised of iron, nickel, and other metals ranging from platinum to rare earth elements.  And these two mini-asteroids — 1986 DA and 2016 ED85 — were recently found to have their spectral signatures are quite similar to asteroid Psyche.

And unlike Psyche, which is between 180 million and 360 million miles away, these mini-Psyches orbit less than twenty million from Earth every 20 to 30 years.

“These kind of metal-rich Near-Earth asteroids are extremely rare,” said Vishnu Reddy of the University of Arizona, and co-author of a recent paper in Planetary Science Journal.  “There are some 27,000 known Near-Earth objects, and only these two are metal rich.  Of the 1.2 million asteroids that have been identified, only a little over a dozen are in that metal-rich category.”

Reddy  has been part of a group researching unusual near-Earth objects since 2005, and so these findings are most rewarding.

“In the years ahead we can study Psyche, a large metal-rich object that is quite far away,” Reddy said.  “And now we also know of two much smaller metal-rich objects that are also much, much closer to us.”

Artist’s conception of Psyche, with orbiter spacecraft.  The mission, led by Linda Elkins-Tanton at Arizona State University, is scheduled to launch next year. 

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Frigid Europa Holds a Huge and Maybe Habitable Ocean Beneath Its Thick Ice Covering. How is That Possible?

Europa has one of the smoothest surface of any body in the solar system.  A moon as old as Europa that did not have an ice cover — and a likely ocean inside — would be pocked with asteroid craters.  On Europa, these craters appear to be absorbed into the icy surface via geologic and thermal processes.  Giant lakes trapped in Europa’s crust also bust up the icy surface. (NASA)

Jupiter’s moon Europa is almost five times as far away from the sun as Earth is, with surface temperatures that don’t rise above minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit.  It’s slightly smaller than our moon and orbits but 400,000 miles from the solar system’s largest planet, which it takes but 3.5 Earth days to orbit.  As a result it is tidally locked, always showing the same face to Jupiter.

When it comes to potentially habitable objects in our solar system, Europa would not seem to be a terribly likely possibility.

But, of course, it is.  And in three years NASA’s Europa Clipper mission will launch to explore what would appear to be one of the most unlikely yet possible places in our solar system to find potential signs of life.

The reason why is that scientists are almost certain that under Europa ‘s 10-to 15 mile ice covering is a deep, global ocean of salty water.

The size of the ocean has not been well determined yet, with estimates of between 40 and 100 miles of depth.  But a  consensus has been reached that the ocean is likely to be global, and contains two to three times as much liquid water as found on Earth.

This then raises a question with great significance for Europa, other moons in the solar system and quite likely planets and moons well beyond us:  How can there be so much liquid water inside such frigid places?

The spot toward the lower left is one Europa, against the backdrop of Jupiter.  Images from Voyager in 1979 bolster the modern hypothesis that Europa has an underground ocean and is therefore a good place to look for extraterrestrial life. The dark spot on the upper right is a shadow of another of Jupiter’s large moons. Sixteen frames from Voyager 1’s 1979 Jupiter flyby were recently reprocessed and merged to create this image.  (NASA, Voyager 1, JPL, Caltech; Processing & License: Alexis Tranchandon / Solaris)

There are numerous possible answers to that question, and it’s likely that all or most played some role.… Read more

Sample Return from Mars Begins in Earnest

This image taken by NASA’s Perseverance rover on Sept. 7, 2021 shows two holes where the rover’s drill obtained chalk-size samples from a rock nicknamed “Rochette.” They are the first physical manifestations of the NASA’s long-planned Mars Sample Return Mission. (NASA/JPL-Caltech.)

For the first time ever, a sample of pulverized rock from another planet has been drilled, collected and stored for eventual delivery to the highest-tech labs on Earth.

Yes, a storehouse of rocks were collected on the moon by Apollo astronauts and delivered to Houston, and some small samples of two asteroids and one comet were snatched by three spacecraft (two Japanese and one American) and their contents were brought here for study.

But never before has the surface of another planet been the source of precious extraterrestrial material that some day, if all goes well, will be received on Earth for intensive analysis.

The feat was accomplished by the team that operates the Perseverance rover on Mars.  After an unsuccessful effort to drill what turned out to be a very soft rock in August , the rover drill succeeded in digging into a briefcase-sized hard volcanic rock twice this month and pulling out samples to be tubed and stored for later pick-up by a different mission.

That next step isn’t scheduled for another half decade and the samples would not arrived on Earth until well after that.  But a long-dreamed and highly-ambitious effort to bring some of Mars to Earth (called Mars Sample Return) has now formally begun.

“This is a truly historic achievement, the very first rock cores collected on another terrestrial planet — it’s amazing,” Meenakshi Wadhwa, Mars sample return principal scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said during a news conference held Friday

“In our science community, we’ve talked about Mars sample return for decades,” Wadhwa said. “And now it’s actually starting to feel real.”

Perseverance’s first cored-rock sample of Mars is seen inside its titanium container tube in this image taken by the rover’s Sampling and Caching System Camera, known as CacheCam. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The press conference was a victory lap of sorts for leaders of a team with many members who have worked eight to ten years for this moment.  Lori Glaze, NASA’s director of the Planetary Science Division, also called it an historic achievement –the culmination of advances pioneered by many other NASA missions to Mars and elsewhere and a milestone for NASA’s Mars program.… Read more

The Many Ways The James Webb Space Telescope Could Fail

Artist rendering of the James Webb Space Telescope when it has opened and is operating. The telescope is scheduled to launch in November, 2021. (NASA)

When a damaged Apollo 13 and its crew were careening to Earth, mission control director Gene Kranz famously told the assembled NASA team that “failure is not an option.”  Actually, the actor playing Kranz in the “Apollo 13” movie spoke those words, but by all accounts Kranz and his team lived that phrase, with a drive that became a reality.

That kind of hard-driving confidence now seems to be built into NASA’s DNA, and with some tragic exceptions it has served the agency well in its myriad high-precision and high-drama ventures.

So it was somewhat surprising (and a bit refreshing)  to read the recent blog post from Thomas Zurbuchen,  NASA’s Associate  Administrator for the Space Science Directorate, on the subject of the scheduled November launch of the James Webb Space Telescope.

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s Associate Administrator of the Space Science Directorate, with the new eyeglasses he introduced in his blog. (NASA)

“Those who are not worried or even terrified about (the challenges facing the JWST mission) are not understanding what we are trying to do,” he wrote.

“For most missions, launch contributes the majority of mission risk – if the spacecraft is in space, most risk is behind us. There are few types of missions that are very much different with most risk coming after launch.

“We have already performed one such mission in February when we landed on Mars. For the Perseverance rover, only 10-20% of the risk was retired during launch, perhaps 50% during the landing, and we are in the middle of the residual risk burn down as we are getting ready to drill and collect the precious Mars samples with the most complex mechanical system ever sent to another planet.

“The second such mission this year is Webb. Like a transformer in the movies, about 50 deployments need to occur after launch to set up the huge system. With 344 so-called single point failures – individual steps that have to work for the mission to be a success – this deployment after launch will keep us on edge for 3 weeks or so. For comparison, this exceeds single point failures for landing on Mars by a factor of 3, and that landing lasted only 7 minutes.”

Zurbuchen is confident that the Webb team and technology is up to the challenge but still, that is quite a risk profile.… Read more

The Surface of Venus Was Thought to Be Stagnant. But This May Not Be True

An oblique radar view of the largest “pack ice” block in the Venus lowlands identified by Byrne et al. (Paul Byrne, based on original NASA/JPL imagery).

The two Earth-sized planets in our solar system have taken wildly different evolutionary routes. The surface of the Earth became a temperate utopia for a liquid water and a myriad of life. But while similar in both size and mass, the surface of the neighboring Venus is hot enough to melt lead.

These differences are the key to understanding the possible outcomes for a rocky planet after it forms out of the dusty disk around a young star. Knowledge of the rocky options is needed to identify the surface environments of extrasolar planets from the limited data we can gleam through our telescopes, and to unpick the properties needed to form a habitable planet. It is a task considered so important that three new Venus missions were approved by NASA and ESA in the last month.

(Read about these missions on Many Worlds here and here)

One such difference between the Earth and Venus is the type of planet surface or, more precisely, the structure of the planet lithosphere that comprises of the crust and uppermost part of the mantle.

The Earth’s lithosphere is broken into mobile chunks that can subduct beneath one another, bunch up to form mountain rages, or pull part. This motion is known as plate tectonics, and it allows material to be cycled between our surface and the hidden mantle deep below our feet. It is a geological process that replenishes nutrients, cools the planet interior, and also forms part of the Earth’s carbon cycle that adjusts the levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere to keep our environment temperate. Without this cycling ability, the Earth would not have been able to stay habitable over such a long period.

Venus and the Earth are extremely close in size and mass. Yet, only the Earth developed plate tectonics (ESA).

By contrast, the lithosphere of Venus does not form plates. This prevents carbon from being drawn into the mantle, and any nutrients below the surface are unreachable. Indeed, the surface of Venus has long been thought to be a single piece of immobile, stagnant lid, with no connection at all with the planet interior.

Not only does the lack of geological processes throttle Venus’s environment, the seemingly complete immobility of the lithosphere was extremely annoying.… Read more

Will The Habitable Exoplanet Observatory (HabEx) — Or Something Like It — Emerge As NASA’s Next Great Observatory?

Artist impression of HabEx spacecraft and a deployed starshade 47,000 miles away, with an exoplanet made visible by the starshade’s blocking of stellar light. (NASA)

Some time later this summer, it is predicted, the National Academy of Sciences will release its long-awaited Decadal Survey for astrophysics, which is expected to recommend the science and architecture that NASA should embrace for its next “Great Observatory.”

Many Worlds earlier featured one of the four concepts in the running — LUVOIR or the Large UV/Optical/IR Surveyor.  With a segmented mirror potentially as wide as 50 feet in diameter, it would revolutionize the search for habitable exoplanets and potentially could detect one (or many) distant planets likely to support life.

Proposed as a “Great Observatory” for the 2030s in the tradition of the Hubble Space Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope (scheduled to launch later this year), LUVOIR would allow for transformative science of not only exoplanets but many other fields of astronomy as well.

Also under serious consideration is the Habitable Exoplanet Observatory, HabEx, which would also bring unprecedented capabilities to the search for life beyond Earth.  Its mirror would be considerably smaller than that proposed for LUVOIR and it would have fewer chances to find an inhabited world.

But it is nonetheless revolutionary in terms of what it potentially can do for exoplanet science and it could come with a second spacecraft that seems to be out of science fiction,  designed to block out starlight so exoplanets nearby can be observed. That 52-meter (or 170-foot) petal-rimmed, light-blocking disc is called a starshade or an occulter, and it would fly 76,600 kilometers (or 47,000 miles) away from the HabEx spacecraft and would work in tandem with the telescope to make those close-in exoplanet observations possible.

While the capabilities of HabEx are fewer compared to LUVOIR and the potential harvest of habitable or inhabited planets is less, HabEx nonetheless would be cutting edge and significantly more capable than the Hubble Space Telescope in nearly every way, while also being less expensive than LUVOIR and requiring less of a technology reach.

Scott Gaudi, an Ohio State University astronomer, was co-chair of the NASA-created team that spent three years studying, engineering and then proposing the HabEx concept. He put the potential choice between HabEx and LUVOIR this way:  “Do you want to take a first step or a first leap?  HabEx is a major step; LUVOIR is a huge leap.”… Read more

And Then There Were Three: ESA Follows NASA in Selecting a Mission to Venus

Artist illustration of the EnVision orbiter at Venus (ESA/VR2Planets/DamiaBouic)

It was quite a week for Venus scientists. Just seven days after NASA announced the selection of two Venus missions, DAVINCI+ and VERITAS, the European Space Agency (ESA) revealed that a third Venus mission had been chosen for the agency’s medium-class mission category.

(See last week’s post here on Many Worlds about DAVINCI+ and VERITAS)

The new mission is named EnVision, and will be ESA’s second Venus mission following Venus Express (2005 – 2014), which investigated the Venusian climate. While EnVision is an orbiter like Venus Express and VERITAS, its focus is the planet’s geological circulation system that links the atmosphere, surface and interior.

In case you are starting to get your Venus missions in a tangle, the set can be broadly divided up as follows:

Venus Express (ESA: 2005 – 2014) and Akatsuki (JAXA: 2015 – current) are both Venus orbiters focussed on the planet’s climate, returning information about the rapidly rotating upper atmosphere and acidic cloud deck of Venus.

DAVINCI+ (NASA: est. 2029 launch) is an orbiter and descending probe that will dive through the Venusian atmosphere to return top-to-bottom data on the planet’s stifling gases.

VERITAS (NASA: est. 2028 launch) is an orbiter focussed on Venus’s surface and the deep interior. VERITAS will bring us global maps in three-dimensions at a resolution of 30m. This will knock the socks off our current images from NASA’s Magellan orbiter (1989 – 1994), which had a resolution of around 200m.

EnVision (ESA: early 2030s) is the mission focused on how these environments are linked together. Equipped with an instrument suite that covers the top of the atmosphere through to below the planet surface, EnVision will probe how the different regions influence one another to create the planet’s internal systems.

“EnVision has a holistic approach,” explained Jörn Helbert who is a member of the EnVision team. “The larger and more complex payload studies Venus from the top of the atmosphere all the way to the subsurface, with a focus on understanding how the coupled system on Venus works.”

Artist illustration of the EnVision spacecraft, reflecting the goal of understanding why Venus and Earth are so different (NASA / JAXA / ISAS / DARTS / Damia Bouic / VR2Planets).

The coupled system is at the heart of how habitability can develop on rocky planets. A major player in the Earth’s environment is the ability to cycle carbon between the atmosphere, surface and planet mantle.… Read more

Return to Hell: NASA Selects Two Missions to Venus to Explore the Pathway to Habitability

Artists’ renderings show the VERITAS spacecraft (left) and DAVINCI+ probe (right) as they arrive at Venus (Lockheed Martin).

For NASA scientists, Venus missions must feel like buses. You wait thirty years for one, and then two come along at once.

Last week, NASA selected two Venus missions for the space agency’s Discovery Program; solar system exploration missions that can tuck under a lower cost cap than candidates for NASA’s New Horizons or Flagship categories. The first of these is DAVINCI+, which is an orbiter equipped with a descending probe that will take a big whiff of Venus’s stifling atmosphere. The second is the VERITAS orbiter that plans to peer through the clouds to scrutinise the Venusian surface.

While Europe and Japan have both visited Venus more recently than NASA (in fact, the Japanese orbiter is still there), there is little doubt that our inner neighbor is dramatically under-explored compared to Mars. But why the past neglect, and why go twice now?

The answer to the first question is perhaps the easiest.

Venus is hell.

The planet is wrapped in a thick atmosphere consisting of carbon dioxide and clouds of sulfuric acid that beat down on the Venusian surface with pressures nearly one hundred times higher than on Earth and create temperatures sufficient to melt lead.

These conditions have made it difficult to follow the usual pattern of planetary exploration from fly-bys and orbiters to landers and rovers. The Venusian surface is so inhospitable that a rover like NASA’s Mars Perseverance would become rover goop. Although recent engineering combined with high-temperature electronics means that the surface is no longer impossible, it does greatly add to the challenge (and therefore cost) of a lander mission.

Professor Stephen Kane, University of California, Riverside.

Hell-scape conditions have also resulted in Venus being overlooked for any astrobiological studies compared to (the still rather nasty but at least you can stand a rover on the surface) Mars. This makes the urgency to explore Venus now particularly surprising. The missions are a quest to understand habitability. The bottom line is that the hell world of Venus is essential to understanding how a planet becomes habitable and to discovering other habitable worlds outside our solar system.

“Imagine you live in a small town full of life,” explains Professor Stephen Kane from the DAVINCI+ team. “The nearest town is the same size and seems it was once identical. But now, it’s burned to the ground with no sign of life.… Read more

China’s Presence in Space Grows and So Do Its Accomplishments

The Chinese Mars lander, with photo taken by the Zhurong rover after it rolled down onto the surface of Mars. (Chinese National Space Administration)

These are heady days for the Chinese space program.

On the heels of a successful 2019 mission to the dark side of the moon and the launch of the core of an ambitious low Earth orbit space station,  the Chinese National Space Administration has done what only NASA has accomplished before — landing a rover on Mars and then setting it into motion on the surface of the planet.

The Zhurong rover, which is named after an ancient fire god in Chinese mythology, rolled off its lander on Saturday and has begun its planned three-month mission.

The rover carries instruments to study the planet’s surface rocks and atmosphere using radar, spectroscopy and a magnetic field detector. It will also look for signs of life, including any subsurface water or ice.

The solar-powered, 530-pound and  six-wheeled robot will be exploring Utopia Planitia in Mars’ northern hemisphere – the general area where NASA’s Viking 2 lander touched down in 1975.  Zhurong will join NASA’s much larger (more than 2,200 pound) Perseverance and Curiosity rovers now operating on Mars.

“We hope we can get a comprehensive covering of Martian topography, landform and environment, and the exploratory data of the radar detecting the Martian subsurface during one Martian year,” said deputy chief commander of the mission, Zhang Yuhua.

“By doing so, our country will have our own abundant and first-hand data about Martian resources,” she said.

The Chinese Mars lander is powered by solar panels and is expected to explore for at least three months.  (Rendering by the Chinese National Space Administration)

While the rover will itself not bring many new technologies and approaches to Mars science, the architecture of the mission is unprecedented.  The Tianwen-1 spacecraft that brought the rover to Mars orbited the planet for more than three months before deploying the lander and rover.  Part of the spacecraft will remain in orbit as a communications hub.

All NASA missions have flown directly to the surface without first going into orbit around Mars.

While the Utopia Planitia region was explored to some extent by Viking 2, much more is known about the region now then was known in the 1970s.

The plains are part of the northern lowlands of Mars, and some theorize that the region was once covered by a great “Northern Ocean.”  Read more

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