Thursday, May 2, 2013
Health issues are jeopardizing the planet-hunting work of NASA’s prolific Kepler space telescope, which has identified more than 2,700 potential alien worlds to date.
One of Kepler’s reaction wheels — devices that maintain the observatory’s position in space — remains balky despite mitigation attempts. The mission team now regards the problem as unsolvable and is considering what the telescope can do after the wheel fails.
“While the wheel may still continue to operate for some time yet, the engineering team has now turned its attention to the development of contingency actions should the wheel fail sooner, rather than later,” Kepler mission manager Roger Hunter, of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., wrote in an update Monday (April 29).
The $600 million Kepler observatory detects exoplanets by flagging the tiny brightness dips caused when they pass in front of their host stars from the instrument’s perspective. Kepler’s main goal is to determine how common Earth-like alien planets are throughout the Milky Way galaxy.
The spacecraft needs three functioning reaction wheels to stay locked onto its 150,000-odd target stars. Kepler had four wheels when it launched in March 2009 — three for immediate use, and one spare. But one wheel (known as number two) failed in July 2012, giving Kepler no margin for error.
The currently glitchy wheel (known as number four) has acted up before, but its problems now seem more serious, mission officials said.
Wednesday, May 1, 2013
NASA’s long-lived Opportunity Mars rover has gone into a self-imposed standby mode on the Red Planet, the robot’s handlers say.
Mission controllers for Opportunity, which landed on Mars in January 2004, first learned of the issue on Saturday (April 27). On that day, the rover got back in touch after a nearly three-week communication moratorium caused by an unfavorable planetary alignment called a Mars solar conjunction, in which Mars and Earth are on opposite sides of the sun.
The Opportunity rover apparently put itself into standby on April 22 after sensing a problem during a routine camera check, mission managers said.
“Our current suspicion is that Opportunity rebooted its flight software, possibly while the cameras on the mast were imaging the sun,” Opportunity project manager John Callas, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., explained in a statement Monday (April 29).
“We found the rover in a standby state called automode, in which it maintains power balance and communication schedules, but waits for instructions from the ground,” Callas added. “We crafted our solar conjunction plan to be resilient to this kind of rover reset, if it were to occur.”
Opportunity’s handlers prepared new commands Monday designed to spur the rover into resuming operations, mission team members said.
Monday, April 29, 2013
NASA’s not giving up on flying people to Mars.
Some critics of the space agency’s recent proposal to fly astronauts to an asteroid say we’re “settling” for something less than the big prize: humans walking on the red planet.
Not true. The mission to an asteroid is part of a stepping-stone approach to sending human beings exploring deeper into the solar system. A sensible look at NASA’s current flight capabilities, human limitations and the space exploration budget means Mars isn’t possible yet.
NASA’s top human spaceflight chief, Bill Gerstenmaier, recently went over the payoffs with a committee of the NASA Advisory Council.
The mission being planned to the asteroid will be a big part in making a mission to Mars possible. Getting there will require developing and flying the super rocket NASA would ultimately need for a trip to Mars, as well as the first model of the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle called Orion. It will require more complex spacewalking equipment and capabilities. And new propulsion technology. And more extended flights.
Friday, April 26, 2013
A billionaire-backed asteroid-mining company aims to start putting its big plans into action soon, launching its first hardware into space by this time next year.
Planetary Resources, which counts Google execs Larry Page and Eric Schmidt among its investors, plans to loft a set of tiny “cubesats” to Earth orbit in early 2014, to test out gear for its first line of asteroid-prospecting spacecraft.
“Our belief and our philosophy is that the best testbed is space itself,” Chris Voorhees, Planetary Resources’ vice president of spacecraft development, said Wednesday (April 24) during a Google+ Hangout event.
“Despite the fact that we’re a deep-space company, we’re going to use Earth orbit as much as possible,” Voorhees added. “For us, it’s a valuable learning experience, and that’s what we plan on doing one year hence.”
The cubesats slated for launch in 2014 will measure 12 inches long by 4 inches wide by 4 inches tall (30 by 10 by 10 centimeters), company officials said. These “Arkyd-3” satellites will test out technologiesfor Planetary Resources’ Arkyd-100 scouts, which the firm hopes to launch to low-Earth orbit on asteroid-hunting missions in 2015.
Wednesday, April 17, 2013
Want to go to Mars? Dutch organisation Mars One says it will open applications imminently. It would be a one-way trip, and the company hopes to build a community of settlers on the planet.
Uncharted waters, mountains or far away lands have always drawn explorers. History books show that desire for adventure, even in the face of extreme danger, did not deter the likes of Columbus or Magellan.
So it is perhaps not surprising that Mars One has already received thousands of prospective applicants. But there is no return - unlike the mission which hopes to fly to Mars and back in 2018.
Future explorers take note. Applicants must be resilient, adaptable, resourceful and must work well within a team. The whole project will be televised, from the reality TV style selection process, to landing and beyond.
On a visit to the BBC’s London office, Mars One’s co-founder Bas Lansdorp explains why this would be a one-way flight.
During the seven-to-eight month journey, astronauts will lose bone and muscle mass. After spending time on Mars’ much weaker gravitational field, it would be almost impossible to readjust back to Earth’s much stronger gravity, says Landsorp.
Successful applicants will be trained physically and psychologically. The team will use existing technology for all aspects of the project. Energy will be generated from solar panels, water will be recycled and extracted from soil and the astronauts will grow their own food - they will also have an emergency ration and regular top-ups as new explorers join every two years.