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An end to “Oppy”

StephensAstro —  February 13, 2019 — Leave a comment

In this navigation camera raw image, NASA's Opportunity Rover looks back over its own tracks on Aug. 4, 2010. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In this navigation camera raw image, NASA’s Opportunity Rover looks back over its own tracks in Martian soil on Aug. 4, 2010. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


 

February 12, 2019 — One of the most successful and enduring feats of interplanetary exploration, NASA’s Opportunity rover mission is at an end after almost 15 years exploring the surface of Mars and helping lay the groundwork for NASA’s return to the Red Planet.

The Opportunity rover stopped communicating with Earth when a severe Mars-wide dust storm blanketed its location in June 2018. After more than a thousand commands to restore contact, engineers in the Space Flight Operations Facility at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) made their last attempt to revive Opportunity Tuesday, to no avail. The solar-powered rover’s final communication was received June 10.

Artist's concept of the Spirit & Opportunity Mars Rovers. Image Credit: NASA

Artist’s concept of the Spirit & Opportunity Mars Rovers. Image Credit: NASA

“It is because of trailblazing missions such as Opportunity that there will come a day when our brave astronauts walk on the surface of Mars,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “And when that day arrives, some portion of that first footprint will be owned by the men and women of Opportunity, and a little rover that defied the odds and did so much in the name of exploration.”

Designed to last just 90 Martian days and travel 1,100 yards (1,000 meters), Opportunity vastly surpassed all expectations in its endurance, scientific value and longevity. In addition to exceeding its life expectancy by 60 times, the rover traveled more than 28 miles (45 kilometers) by the time it reached its most appropriate final resting spot on Mars – “Perseverance Valley.”

“For more than a decade, Opportunity has been an icon in the field of planetary exploration, teaching us about Mars’ ancient past as a wet, potentially habitable planet, and revealing uncharted Martian landscapes,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “Whatever loss we feel now must be tempered with the knowledge that the legacy of Opportunity continues – both on the surface of Mars with the Curiosity rover and InSight lander – and in the clean rooms of JPL, where the upcoming Mars 2020 rover is taking shape.”

Click here for more on NASA’s Mars rovers!

This image taken by the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) is the most detailed of Ultima Thule returned so far by the New Horizons spacecraft. It was taken at 5:01 Universal Time on January 1, 2019, just 30 minutes before closest approach from a range of 18,000 miles (28,000 kilometers), with an original scale of 730 feet (140 meters) per pixel. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

This image taken by the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) is the most detailed of Ultima Thule returned so far by the New Horizons spacecraft. It was taken at 5:01 Universal Time on January 1, 2019, just 30 minutes before closest approach from a range of 18,000 miles (28,000 kilometers), with an original scale of 730 feet (140 meters) per pixel.Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

 

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew past Ultima Thule in the early hours of New Year’s Day, ushering in the era of exploration from the enigmatic Kuiper Belt, a region of primordial objects that holds keys to understanding the origins of the solar system.

Signals confirming the spacecraft is healthy and had filled its digital recorders with science data on Ultima Thule reached the mission operations center at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) today at 10:29 a.m. EST, almost exactly 10 hours after New Horizons’ closest approach to the object.

Artist's depiction of New Horizons in the Kuiper Belt region of our Solar System. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Artist’s depiction of New Horizons in the Kuiper Belt region of our Solar System. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

“New Horizons performed as planned today, conducting the farthest exploration of any world in history — 4 billion miles from the Sun,” said Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “The data we have look fantastic and we’re already learning about Ultima from up close. From here out the data will just get better and better!”

Images taken during the spacecraft’s approach — which brought New Horizons to within just 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers) of Ultima at 12:33 a.m. EST — revealed that the Kuiper Belt object may have a shape similar to a bowling pin, spinning end over end, with dimensions of approximately 20 by 10 miles (32 by 16 kilometers). Another possibility is Ultima could be two objects orbiting each other. Flyby data have already solved one of Ultima’s mysteries, showing that the Kuiper Belt object is spinning like a propeller with the axis pointing approximately toward New Horizons. This explains why, in earlier images taken before Ultima was resolved, its brightness didn’t appear to vary as it rotated. The team has still not determined the rotation period.

As the science data began its initial return to Earth, mission team members and leadership reveled in the excitement of the first exploration of this distant region of space.

“New Horizons holds a dear place in our hearts as an intrepid and persistent little explorer, as well as a great photographer,” said Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory Director Ralph Semmel. “This flyby marks a first for all of us — APL, NASA, the nation and the world — and it is a great credit to the bold team of scientists and engineers who brought us to this point.”

“Reaching Ultima Thule from 4 billion miles away is an incredible achievement. This is exploration at its finest,” said Adam L. Hamilton, president and CEO of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “Kudos to the science team and mission partners for starting the textbooks on Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. We’re looking forward to seeing the next chapter.”

The New Horizons spacecraft will continue downloading images and other data in the days and months ahead, completing the return of all science data over the next 20 months. When New Horizons launched in January 2006, George W. Bush was in the White House, Twitter had just been launched and Time Magazine’s Person of the Year was “you — all the worldwide web users.” Nine years into its journey, the spacecraft began its exploration of the Kuiper Belt with a flyby of Pluto and its moons. Almost 13 years after the launch, the spacecraft will continue its exploration of the Kuiper Belt until at least 2021. Team members plan to propose more Kuiper Belt exploration.

For more information about the amazing New Horizons mission, visit: http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/

Image: A bright fireball meteor streak captured by the NASA All Sky Fireball Network Camera located at Hiram College.

A bright fireball meteor streak captured by the NASA All Sky Fireball Network Camera located at Hiram College.


 
Did you see it? Our NASA All Sky Fireball Network camera picked up a pretty decent meteor streak in the wee hours (2:33 AM) this morning. It would have been a bit chilly to sit up all night watching ourselves, but the camera system operates all night, every clear night to record meteoric activity. Learn more here: https://fireballs.ndc.nasa.gov/

Image: This illustration shows the position of NASA’s Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes, outside of the heliosphere, a protective bubble created by the Sun that extends well past the orbit of Pluto. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This illustration shows the position of NASA’s Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes, outside of the heliosphere, a protective bubble created by the Sun that extends well past the orbit of Pluto. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

 
For the second time in history, a human-made object has reached the space between the stars. NASA’s Voyager 2 probe now has exited the heliosphere – the protective bubble of particles and magnetic fields created by the Sun.

Comparing data from different instruments aboard the trailblazing spacecraft, mission scientists determined the probe crossed the outer edge of the heliosphere on Nov. 5. This boundary, called the heliopause, is where the tenuous, hot solar wind meets the cold, dense interstellar medium. Its twin, Voyager 1, crossed this boundary in 2012, but Voyager 2 carries a working instrument that will provide first-of-its-kind observations of the nature of this gateway into interstellar space.

Voyager 2 now is slightly more than 11 billion miles (18 billion kilometers) from Earth. Mission operators still can communicate with Voyager 2 as it enters this new phase of its journey, but information – moving at the speed of light – takes about 16.5 hours to travel from the spacecraft to Earth. By comparison, light traveling from the Sun takes about eight minutes to reach Earth.

The most compelling evidence of Voyager 2’s exit from the heliosphere came from its onboard Plasma Science Experiment (PLS), an instrument that stopped working on Voyager 1 in 1980, long before that probe crossed the heliopause. Until recently, the space surrounding Voyager 2 was filled predominantly with plasma flowing out from our Sun. This outflow, called the solar wind, creates a bubble – the heliosphere – that envelopes the planets in our solar system. The PLS uses the electrical current of the plasma to detect the speed, density, temperature, pressure and flux of the solar wind. The PLS aboard Voyager 2 observed a steep decline in the speed of the solar wind particles on Nov. 5. Since that date, the plasma instrument has observed no solar wind flow in the environment around Voyager 2, which makes mission scientists confident the probe has left the heliosphere.

“Working on Voyager makes me feel like an explorer, because everything we’re seeing is new,” said John Richardson, principal investigator for the PLS instrument and a principal research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “Even though Voyager 1 crossed the heliopause in 2012, it did so at a different place and a different time, and without the PLS data. So we’re still seeing things that no one has seen before.”

In addition to the plasma data, Voyager’s science team members have seen evidence from three other onboard instruments – the cosmic ray subsystem, the low energy charged particle instrument and the magnetometer – that is consistent with the conclusion that Voyager 2 has crossed the heliopause. Voyager’s team members are eager to continue to study the data from these other onboard instruments to get a clearer picture of the environment through which Voyager 2 is traveling.

“There is still a lot to learn about the region of interstellar space immediately beyond the heliopause,” said Ed Stone, Voyager project scientist based at Caltech in Pasadena, California.

“Voyager has a very special place for us in our heliophysics fleet,” said Nicola Fox, director of the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters. “Our studies start at the Sun and extend out to everything the solar wind touches. To have the Voyagers sending back information about the edge of the Sun’s influence gives us an unprecedented glimpse of truly uncharted territory.”

While the probes have left the heliosphere, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 have not yet left the solar system, and won’t be leaving anytime soon. The boundary of the solar system is considered to be beyond the outer edge of the Oort Cloud, a collection of small objects that are still under the influence of the Sun’s gravity. The width of the Oort Cloud is not known precisely, but it is estimated to begin at about 1,000 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun and to extend to about 100,000 AU. One AU is the distance from the Sun to Earth. It will take about 300 years for Voyager 2 to reach the inner edge of the Oort Cloud and possibly 30,000 years to fly beyond it.

Photo: Saturn’s rings are perhaps the most recognized feature of any world in our solar system. Cassini spent more than a decade examining them more closely than any spacecraft before it. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Saturn’s rings are perhaps the most recognized feature of any world in our solar system. Cassini spent more than a decade examining them more closely than any spacecraft before it. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

 

October 4, 2018: New research emerging from the final orbits of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft represents a huge leap forward in our understanding of the Saturn system — especially the mysterious, never-before-explored region between the planet and its rings. Some preconceived ideas are turning out to be wrong while new questions are being raised.

Six teams of researchers are publishing their work Oct. 5 in the journal Science, based on findings from Cassini’s Grand Finale. That’s when, as the spacecraft was running out of fuel, the mission team steered Cassini spectacularly close to Saturn in 22 orbits before deliberately vaporizing it in a final plunge into the atmosphere in September 2017.

Knowing Cassini’s days were numbered, its mission team went for gold. The spacecraft flew where it was never designed to fly. For the first time, it probed Saturn’s magnetized environment, flew through icy, rocky ring particles and sniffed the atmosphere in the 1,200-mile-wide (2,000-kilometer-wide) gap between the rings and the cloud tops. Not only did the flight path push the spacecraft to its limits, the new findings illustrate how powerful and agile the instruments were.

Many more Grand Finale science results are to come, but here are some of today’s highlights:

  • Complex organic compounds embedded in water nanograins rain down from Saturn’s rings into its upper atmosphere. Scientists saw water and silicates, but they were surprised to see also methane, ammonia, carbon monoxide, nitrogen and carbon dioxide. The composition of the organics is different from that found on moon Enceladus — and also different from that on moon Titan, meaning there are at least three distinct reservoirs of organic molecules in the Saturn system.
  • For the first time, Cassini saw up close how rings interact with the planet and observed inner-ring particles and gases falling directly into the atmosphere. Some particles take on electric charges and spiral along magnetic-field lines, falling into Saturn at higher latitudes — a phenomenon known as “ring rain.” But scientists were surprised to see that others are dragged quickly into Saturn at the equator. And it’s all falling out of the rings faster than scientists thought — as much as 22,000 pounds (10,000 kilograms) of material per second.
  • Scientists were surprised to see what the material looks like in the gap between the rings and Saturn’s atmosphere. They knew that the particles throughout the rings ranged from large to small. But the sampling in the gap showed mostly tiny, nanometer-sized particles, like smoke, suggesting that some yet-unknown process is grinding up particles.
  • Saturn and its rings are even more interconnected than scientists thought. Cassini revealed a previously unknown electric-current system that connects the rings to the top of Saturn’s atmosphere.
  • Scientists discovered a new radiation belt around Saturn, close to the planet and composed of energetic particles. They found that while the belt actually intersects with the innermost ring, the ring is so tenuous that it doesn’t block the belt from forming.
  • Unlike every other planet with a magnetic field in our Solar System, Saturn’s magnetic field is almost completely aligned with its spin axis. The new data shows a magnetic-field tilt of less than 0.0095 degrees. (Earth’s magnetic field is tilted 11 degrees from its spin axis.) According to everything scientists know about how planetary magnetic fields are generated, Saturn should not have one. It’s a mystery that physicists will be working to solve.
  • Cassini flew above Saturn’s magnetic poles, directly sampling regions where radio emissions are generated. The findings more than doubled the number of direct measurements of radio sources from the planet, one of the few non-terrestrial locations where scientists have been able to study a radio-generation mechanism that is believed to operate throughout the universe.

For the Cassini mission, the science rolling out from Grand Finale orbits more than justifies the calculated risk of diving into the gap — skimming the upper atmosphere and skirting the edge of the inner rings, said Cassini Project Scientist Linda Spilker.

“Almost everything going on in that region turned out to be a surprise,” Spilker said. “That was the importance of going there, to explore a place we’d never been before. And the expedition really paid off — the data is tremendously exciting.”

Analysis of Cassini data from the spacecraft’s instruments will be ongoing for years to come, helping to paint a clearer picture of Saturn.

“Many mysteries remain, as we put together pieces of the puzzle,” Spilker said. “Results from Cassini’s final orbits turned out to be more interesting than we could have imagined.”

The papers published in Science are:

On Oct. 4, as the Science publication embargo lifts, articles describing research complementary to these findings will post online in Geophysical Research Letters (GRL), a journal of the American Geophysical Union (AGU).

2007 Total Lunar Eclipse. Photo by James Guilford.

2007 Total Lunar Eclipse – Photo by James Guilford

A total lunar eclipse will take place in the pre-dawn hours of January 31 but interested viewers in Northeastern Ohio are not well-favored! Weather conditions predicted for Wednesday morning are poor (mostly cloudy, at best) and the timing of the eclipse event itself works against us; at best we would see only a portion of the partial phase before our Moon sets!

Our best bet for watching this total lunar eclipse will be to view it on television or via streaming video. NASA Television and the agency’s website will provide live coverage of the celestial spectacle beginning at 5:30 a.m. EST. Weather permitting, the broadcast will feature views from the varying vantage points of telescopes at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California; Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles; and the University of Arizona’s Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter Observatory. You can access the live NASA broadcast via some cable television services, or online through NASA’s Moon webpages.

If skies do clear enough to see the Moon from our area, here’s a timetable for significant points in the upcoming eclipse as viewed from the city of Oberlin — the timing would be off only by a few seconds viewed from other areas of Northeastern Ohio.

Table giving Timing of January 31, 2018 Total Lunar Eclipse - Credit: TimeAndDate.com

Table giving Timing of January 31, 2018 Total Lunar Eclipse – Credit: TimeAndDate.com

This eclipse event is getting special attention because it offers the rare coincidence of three lunar events: A “supermoon,” a “blue moon” and a total lunar eclipse at the same time. A “supermoon” occurs when the Moon is closest to Earth in its orbit (at or near perigee) and appears about 14 percent brighter than usual. As the second Full Moon of the month, this Moon is also commonly called a Blue Moon, though it will not be blue in appearance. The “Super Blue Moon” will pass through Earth’s shadow and take on a reddish copper to deep-red tint. The eerie colors of totality seen during lunar eclipses frightened the ancients but delight us!

The last total lunar eclipse occurred Sept. 27-28, 2015. The next total lunar eclipse visible across North America will occur January 21, 2019.

The January 31 eclipse is the third in a series of supermoons in December 2017 and January 2018. Watch the Supermoon Trilogy video.

UPDATE: On January 18, the American Meteor Society reported two meteorites from the January 16 were found in Michigan. Congratulations to Robert Ward and Larry Atkins on the first two reported finds. The two pieces were black, about the size of driveway gravel stones.

 

A brilliant meteor flashed across the skies of the Great Lakes Region of the U.S. Tuesday night ending with two brilliant flashes and loud booms. People reacted with delight and alarm, some calling emergency services after witnessing the event. Officials quickly identified the source as a good-sized meteor entering Earth’s atmosphere, flaring and exploding as a fireball-bolide (brilliant, exploding meteor). Here’s what we know, courtesy of William Cooke, Ph.D., NASA Meteoroid Environment Office. This statement has been edited and updated from social media posts made by Dr. Cooke. — ed.

A very bright fireball (possible superbolide, which has a brightness between that of the Full Moon and the Sun) was seen in the Michigan, Ohio, Illinois region Tuesday night, January 16, at 8:08:30 PM EST. Preliminary information indicates that this meteoroid/small asteroid entered the atmosphere above the southeastern part of Michigan, just to the northwest of Detroit. The fireball was so bright that it was seen through clouds by our meteor camera located at Oberlin College, about 120 miles away.

 

Photo: A fireball meteor (bright dot in the upper-right of this image) glowed brilliantly northwest of Detroit, Michigan, and was imaged by the NASA All-Sky Fireball Network camera at Oberlin College in Northeastern Ohio.

A fireball meteor (bright dot in the upper-right of this image) flared brilliantly northwest of Detroit, Michigan, as it shot through the atmosphere. Here the event is shown as imaged by the NASA All-Sky Fireball Network camera at Oberlin College in Northeastern Ohio. The camera system located at Hiram College recorded a flash in the clouds close to the horizon but was a bit too far away for a better look. Courtesy: NASA Meteoroid Environment Office (MEO)

 

A fireball meteor (bright dot in the upper-right of this image) flared brilliantly northwest of Detroit, Michigan, as it shot through the atmosphere. Here the event is shown as imaged by the NASA All-Sky Fireball Network camera at Oberlin College in Northeastern Ohio. The camera system located at Hiram College recorded a flash in the clouds close to the horizon but was a bit too far away for a better look. Courtesy: NASA Meteoroid Environment Office (MEO)

Courtesy: NASA Meteoroid Environment Office (MEO)

 

We have calculated that this was a very slow moving meteor – speed of about 28,000 miles per hour. This fact, combined with the brightness of the meteor (which suggests a fairly big space rock at least a yard across), shows that the object penetrated deep into the atmosphere before it broke apart (which produced the sounds heard by many observers). It is likely that there are meteorites on the ground near this region – one of our colleagues at Johnson Space Center has found a Doppler weather radar signature characteristic of meteoritic material falling to earth.

Pieces of an asteroid lying near Detroit? Let’s see what the meteorite hunters find.