Thursday, July 16, 2015

New Features Indentified on Pluto

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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is at Pluto.

One of the final images taken before New Horizons made its closest approach to Pluto on 14 July 2015. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

After a decade-long journey through our solar system, New Horizons made its closest approach to Pluto Tuesday, about 7,750 miles above the surface -- roughly the same distance from New York to Mumbai, India - making it the first-ever space mission to explore a world so far from Earth.
"I'm delighted at this latest accomplishment by NASA, another first that demonstrates once again how the United States leads the world in space," said John Holdren, assistant to the President for Science and Technology and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. "New Horizons is the latest in a long line of scientific accomplishments at NASA, including multiple missions orbiting and exploring the surface of Mars in advance of human visits still to come; the remarkable Kepler mission to identify Earth-like planets around stars other than our own; and the DSCOVR satellite that soon will be beaming back images of the whole Earth in near real-time from a vantage point a million miles away. As New Horizons completes its flyby of Pluto and continues deeper into the Kuiper Belt, NASA's multifaceted journey of discovery continues."
"The exploration of Pluto and its moons by New Horizons represents the capstone event to 50 years of planetary exploration by NASA and the United States," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "Once again we have achieved a historic first. The United States is the first nation to reach Pluto, and with this mission has completed the initial survey of our solar system, a remarkable accomplishment that no other nation can match."
Per the plan, the spacecraft currently is in data-gathering mode and not in contact with flight controllers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physical Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. Scientists are waiting to find out whether New Horizons "phones home," transmitting to Earth a series of status updates that indicate the spacecraft survived the flyby and is in good health. The "call" is expected shortly after 9 p.m. tonight.
The Pluto story began only a generation ago when young Clyde Tombaugh was tasked to look for Planet X, theorized to exist beyond the orbit of Neptune. He discovered a faint point of light that we now see as a complex and fascinating world.
"Pluto was discovered just 85 years ago by a farmer's son from Kansas, inspired by a visionary from Boston, using a telescope in Flagstaff, Arizona," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "Today, science takes a great leap observing the Pluto system up close and flying into a new frontier that will help us better understand the origins of the solar system."

New Horizons' flyby of the dwarf planet and its five known moons is providing an up-close introduction to the solar system's Kuiper Belt, an outer region populated by icy objects ranging in size from boulders to dwarf planets. Kuiper Belt objects, such as Pluto, preserve evidence about the early formation of the solar system.
New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado, says the mission now is writing the textbook on Pluto.

"The New Horizons team is proud to have accomplished the first exploration of the Pluto system," Stern said. "This mission has inspired people across the world with the excitement of exploration and what humankind can achieve."

New Horizons' almost 10-year, three-billion-mile journey to closest approach at Pluto took about one minute less than predicted when the craft was launched in January 2006. The spacecraft threaded the needle through a 36-by-57 mile (60 by 90 kilometers) window in space -- the equivalent of a commercial airliner arriving no more off target than the width of a tennis ball.

Because New Horizons is the fastest spacecraft ever launched - hurtling through the Pluto system at more than 30,000 mph, a collision with a particle as small as a grain of rice could incapacitate the spacecraft. Once it reestablishes contact Tuesday night, it will take 16 months for New Horizons to send its cache of data - 10 years' worth -- back to Earth.

New Horizons is the latest in a long line of scientific accomplishments at NASA, including multiple rovers exploring the surface of Mars, the Cassini spacecraft that has revolutionized our understanding of Saturn and the Hubble Space Telescope, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. All of this scientific research and discovery is helping to inform the agency's plan to send American astronauts to Mars in the 2030's.
"After nearly 15 years of planning, building, and flying the New Horizons spacecraft across the solar system, we've reached our goal," said project manager Glen Fountain at APL "The bounty of what we've collected is about to unfold."
APL designed, built and operates the New Horizons spacecraft and manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. SwRI leads the mission, science team, payload operations and encounter science planning. New Horizons is part of NASA's New Frontiers Program, managed by the agency's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
Follow the New Horizons mission on Twitter and use the hashtag #PlutoFlyby to join the conversation. Live updates also will be available on the mission Facebook page.
For more information on the New Horizons mission, including fact sheets, schedules, video and images, visit:


The above link is to a NASA animation which combines various observations of Pluto over the course of several decades.

The first frame is a digital zoom-in on Pluto as it appeared upon its discovery by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 (image courtesy Lowell Observatory Archives). Note: This image is property of the Lowell Observatory Archives. Any public use requires written permission of the Lowell Observatory Archives.

The other images show various views of Pluto as seen by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope beginning in the 1990s and NASA's New Horizons spacecraft in 2015. The final sequence zooms in to this close-up frame of Pluto released by NASA on July 15, 2015.

Mountains on Pluto
A new close-up image of an equatorial region near the base of Pluto’s bright heart-shaped feature shows a mountain range with peaks jutting as high as 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) above the surface of the icy body. The mountains on Pluto likely formed no more than 100 million years ago -- mere youngsters in a 4.56-billion-year-old solar system. This suggests the close-up region, which covers about one percent of Pluto’s surface, may still be geologically active today. 

“This is one of the youngest surfaces we’ve ever seen in the solar system,” said Jeff Moore of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team (GGI) at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.

Complete source list for the above animation,  in order with image credits:
Clyde Tombaugh, Lowell Observatory, 1930:

Hubble Space Telescope, 1996:
Hubble Space Telescope, 1994:
Hubble Space Telescope, 2011:
Hubble Space Telescope, 2002-2003:
New Horizons, April 9, 2015:
New Horizons, May 12, 2015:
New Horizons, June 2, 2015:
New Horizons, June 15, 2015:
New Horizons, July 1, 2015:
New Horizons, July 3, 2015:
New Horizons, July 8, 2015:
New Horizons, July 10, 2015:
New Horizons, July 11, 2015:
New Horizons, July 13, 2015:
New Horizons, July 14, 2015:
New Horizons, July 15, 2015:
Last Updated: July 15, 2015
Editor: Rob Garner
Tags:  Dwarf Planets, Goddard Space Flight Center, New Horizons, Pluto, Solar System

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

'The Martian' author Andy Weir is less optimistic about getting to Mars than NASA

"The Martian" was reviewed on this blog.
"During a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney is presumed dead after a fierce storm and left behind by his crew. But Watney has survived and finds himself stranded and alone on the hostile planet. With only meager supplies, he must draw upon his ingenuity, wit and spirit to subsist and find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive." - IMDA
Writers: (screenplay), (book)
The book is soon to be a movie starring Matt Damon, but the book's author Andy Weir is surprisingly less optimistic than NASA about the likelihood of humans making it to Mars, "My stock answer is probably around 2050," Weir told the audience assembled at this week's Humans to Mars conference at The George Washington University.

"I know that sounds further away than most people would like to hear, but the technology necessary to get there and the costs of getting there are just very high and it's a big challenge."  This was not the timeline that NASA announced at the same conference:  NASA space agency's head, Charles Bolden, opened the conference by announcing a timeline that puts USA astronauts on Mars in the 2030s, a goal that Bolden insisted NASA is on track to meet. In response to a question, Weir told the audience that his own 2050 estimate for getting humans to Mars "might be optimistic," going on to recall that during the Apollo missions, many thought we'd be on Mars by the 1980s.

Weir supports creating a colony on Mars so that humanity can become less dependent on Earth. "I would like to have a self-sufficient colony of humans and other species somewhere other than Earth," he said. "I'm a 25-year-veteran software engineer and I think it's important to back things up."

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

India's MOM Arrives in Orbit of Mars: Mars Orbiter Mission cost less than the movie "Gravity."

In June, India’s prime minister Narendra Modi claimed that, at a cost of just $74 million, the Mars Orbiter Mission was less expensive than production of the Oscar-winning science fiction film “Gravity,” which cost a reported $100 million to make. For comparison, NASA’s most recent Mars probe, Maven, which made orbit on Sunday, ran up a cost of about $671 million and the European Space Agency’s 2003 mission's price tag was roughly $386 million.
India’s space agency has honed its ability to make do with limited resources over the years out of “sheer necessity,” according to the Wall Street Journal. In addition to operating on a comparatively paltry budget, many international agencies refused to share expertise with ISRO’s scientists after the country began conducting nuclear weapons tests.
While some critics question whether a nation that is home to a third of the world’s poorest people should be spending roughly a billion dollars per year on space exploration, India counters that the program drives innovation and fuels employment in the country. Modi hopes the mission will help establish India as the world leader in cheap space exploration.

The spacecraft called “Mangalyaan,” or “Mars-craft” in Hindi, which was launched last November, slowed down just enough to reach orbit early Wednesday, securing India a place in the elite global space club of Martian explorers.
Images of beaming scientists clapping and hugging each other at the command center in the southern city of Bangalore were shown live in a nationally televised broadcast after a breathless, nail-biting countdown during the spacecraft’s final leg.
Over an hour after reaching the orbit, the space agency received the first photographic data of the red planet’s terrain which were transmitted via an antenna located in Canberra, Australia.
Calling it the “national pride event,” the Indian Space Research Organization also showed it live on Facebook and Twitter.
Officials at the space agency said that for the past two months, scientists worked more than 12 hours a day brainstorming every possible problem and coming up with exhaustive recovery options.
MOM has built-in intelligence, autonomy and a stand-by control system to prevent a breakdown in communication, said M. Pitchaimani, deputy director of the control center at the Indian Space Research Organization.
“Many countries have failed in their first attempt. India got success the first time itself,” said Pitchaimani in a telephone interview. “But this has come after intense study of others’ failures and the reasons for failure, and building our satellite accordingly. We also had gained from their accumulated knowledge about the gravity field of the planet and we built robust instruments based on that data.”
More than half of the 51 Mars missions launched globally have failed. India’s successful mission follows those of the United States, Europe and Russia. But India’s mission cost a fraction of NASA’s $670 million Maven, which entered Mars orbit Sunday. The Curiosity Rover, which touched down on Mars in 2012, cost nearly $2 billion.
By comparison, India’s $72 million Mars orbiter is the cheapest interplanetary mission ever. Modi said that India’s Mars mission cost less than what it took to make the famous Hollywood space movie “Gravity.”
“We kept it low cost, high technology. That is the Indian way of working,” Sandip Bhattacharya, assistant director of B.M. Birla Planetarium in the northern city of Jaipur, said in a telephone interview. “ . . . Our goal was to reach Mars and send few pictures and scientific data. Now in the coming years, this will give us leverage to plan for newer Mars missions in a more aggressive manner with heavier payload with larger exploration goals.”
  Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hailed India’s low-cost space technology, saying a rocket which launched four foreign satellites into orbit had cost less to make than the Hollywood film “Gravity.”
India’s domestically-produced Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) blasted off Monday morning from the southern spaceport of Sriharikota, carrying satellites from France, Germany, Canada and Singapore.
“India has the potential to be the launch service provider of the world and must work towards this goal,” Modi said from the site, one month after coming to power at the head of a right-wing government.
Satellite launch industry revenues totalled $2.2 billion in 2012, according to the US Satellite Industry Association, and India is keen to expand its modest share of this market as a low-cost provider.
“I have heard about the film Gravity. I am told the cost of sending an Indian rocket to space is less than the money invested in making the Hollywood movie,” Modi added.
The budget of the British-American 3D sci-fi thriller, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, was about $100 million, according to industry website IMDb.
Last year, India launched a bid to become the first Asian nation to reach Mars with a mission whose price tag was the envy of space programmes world-wide.
The total cost at INR 4.5 billion ($73 million) was less than a sixth of the $455 million earmarked for a Mars probe launched shortly afterwards by US space agency NASA.
Experts say the secret is India’s ability to copy and adapt existing space technology for its own needs, and the abundance of highly-skilled engineers who earn a fraction of their foreign counterparts’ wages.
Modi said the country must be proud of its space programme, developed in the face of “great international pressure and hurdles”
Western sanctions on India after the nation staged a nuclear weapons test in 1974 gave a major thrust to the space programme because New Delhi needed to develop its own missile technology.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

NASA's Curiosity Mars Rover finds Iron Meteorite called "Lebanon."

This rock encountered by NASA's Curiosity Mars rover is an iron meteorite called "Lebanon," similar in shape and luster to iron meteorites found on Mars by the previous generation of rovers, Spirit and Opportunity.  Lebanon is about 2 yards or 2 meters wide (left to right, from this angle). The smaller piece in the foreground is called "Lebanon B."
This view combines a series of high-resolution circular images taken by the Remote Micro-Imager (RMI) of Curiosity's Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument with color and context from rover's Mast Camera (Mastcam).  The component images were taken during the 640th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars (May 25, 2014).
The imaging shows angular shaped cavities on the surface of the rock. One possible explanation is that they resulted from preferential erosion along crystalline boundaries within the metal of the rock.  Another possibility is that these cavities once contained olivine crystals, which can be found in a rare type of stony-iron meteorites called pallasites, thought to have been formed near the core-mantle boundary within an asteroid.
Iron meteorites are not rare among meteorites found on Earth, but they are less common than stony meteorites. On Mars, iron meteorites dominate the small number of meteorites that have been found. Part of the explanation could come from the resistance of iron meteorites to erosion processes on Mars.
ChemCam is one of 10 instruments in Curiosity's science payload. The U.S. Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory, in Los Alamos, New Mexico, developed ChemCam in partnership with scientists and engineers funded by the French national space agency (CNES), the University of Toulouse and the French national research agency (CNRS). More information about ChemCam is available at .  The rover's MastCam was built by and is operated by Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego.

Monday, May 19, 2014

NASA's Curiosity Rover's current location as of May 15

NASA's Curiosity Rover's current location as of May 15.
NASA's Curiosity Rover's current location as of May 15.  NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona