Monday, November 28, 2011

NASA launches $2.5 billion rover to Red Planet

NASA has launched its next Mars rover, kicking off a long-awaited mission to investigate whether the Red Planet could ever have hosted microbial life.

The car-size Curiosity rover blasted off atop its Atlas 5 rocket at 10:02 a.m. ET Saturday, streaking into a cloudy sky above Cape Canaveral Air Force Station here. The huge robot’s next stop is Mars, though the 354-million-mile (570-million-kilometer) journey will take eight and a half months.

Joy Crisp a deputy project scientist for the rover at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., called the liftoff “spectacular.”

“This feels great,” she said as she watched the rocket lift off from Cape Canaveral.

Pamela Conrad, deputy principal investigator for the mission at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., said, “Every milestone feels like such a relief. It’s a beautiful day. The sun’s out, and all these people came out to watch.”

The work Curiosity does when it finally arrives should revolutionize our understanding of the Red Planet and pave the way for future efforts to hunt for potential Martian life, researchers said.

“It is absolutely a feat of engineering, and it will bring science like nobody’s ever expected,” Doug McCuistion, head of NASA’s Mars exploration program, said of Curiosity. “I can’t even imagine the discoveries that we’re going to come up with.”

Full article: http://www.msnbc.msn … nch-huge-mars-rover/

Monday, November 14, 2011

JUNO Mission Status Update

As of November 11, 2011 Juno was approximately 32.3 million miles (52 million kilometers) from Earth. The spacecraft is traveling at a velocity of 62,800 miles per hour (101,100 kilometers per hour) relative to the sun. Velocity relative to Earth is 26,800 miles per hour (43,100 kilometers per hour). One-way travel time for a signal from Earth is approximately 2 minutes 54 seconds. The spacecraft is in excellent health and is operating nominally. Two of Juno’s instruments are currently turned on: Waves and the Magnetometer experiment.

During the period of October 20 - 26 the Juno team completed the low-voltage checkout for the JADE instrument. This completes the final low voltage checkouts for Juno’s suite of instruments, allowing the mission controllers to undertake high voltage checkouts for the JADE, JEDI and UVS instruments in the coming weeks.

The JEDI instrument’s three detectors successfully deployed their doors during this period — a one-time spacecraft event. Each JEDI detector is shaped something like a hockey puck with its curved side split open to form a door through which charged particles can enter. Juno’s JEDI instrument is similar in its configuration to the New Horizons spacecraft’s Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation, or PEPSSI, instrument.

During the period of Oct. 27 - Nov. 2, the mission operations team completed a set of calibration activities for pointing the spacecraft’s high gain antenna and switched to using that antenna as Juno’s primary communications link. Juno has a total of five antennas, and the mission team chooses which one to use as the primary at each point in the mission based on Juno’s orientation in space and its distance from both earth and the sun. … juno/main/index.html

Thursday, November 10, 2011

NASA runs J-2X engine 500 seconds in ground firing

The powerful liquid hydrogen-fed engine NASA is developing to propel hardware and humans out of Earth orbit underwent a successful ground test-firing in Mississippi on Wednesday afternoon.

The J-2X powerplant built by Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne will be fitted to the upper stage of the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket that will send manned missions to deep space.

“The J-2X engine is critical to the development of the Space Launch System,” Dan Dumbacher, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development, said after the test at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. “Today’s test means NASA is moving closer to developing the rocket it needs if humans are to explore beyond low-Earth orbit.”

On the A-2 test stand at the Stennis Space Center, the engine roared to life at 4:04 p.m. EST (2104 GMT) for a 499.97-second firing to simulate flight conditions at its full-power throttle setting.

It is the same facility originally built in the 1960s for Apollo testing and then used to fire space shuttle main engines before being retrofitted to support the J-2X.

This engine itself was derived from the J-2 cryogenic powerplant used aboard the Saturn 5 moon rockets a half-century ago.

[Read More…]

Monday, November 7, 2011

City lights could reveal E.T. civilization

Astromers Avi Loeb (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) and Edwin Turner (Princeton University) suggest a new technique for finding aliens: look for their city lights.

“Looking for alien cities would be a long shot, but wouldn’t require extra resources. And if we succeed, it would change our perception of our place in the universe,” said Loeb.

As with other SETI methods, they rely on the assumption that aliens would use Earth-like technologies. This is reasonable because any intelligent life that evolved in the light from its nearest star is likely to have artificial illumination that switches on during the hours of darkness.

How easy would it be to spot a city on a distant planet? Clearly, this light will have to be distinguished from the glare from the parent star. Loeb and Turner suggest looking at the change in light from an exoplanet as it moves around its star.

As the planet orbits, it goes through phases similar to those of the Moon. When it’s in a dark phase, more artificial light from the night side would be visible from Earth than reflected light from the day side. So the total flux from a planet with city lighting will vary in a way that is measurably different from a planet that has no artificial lights.

Spotting this tiny signal would require future generations of telescopes. However, the technique could be tested closer to home, using objects at the edge of our solar system.

[Read More…]

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

ESA wrestles with software errors on Mars Express probe

European officials have temporarily halted scientific observations aboard the Mars Express spacecraft after a spate of software hiccups, but managers are hopeful the mission can resume research after eight years at Mars.

The Mars Express probe’s 12-gigabit solid-state mass memory unit, which stores scientific and engineering data before transmission to Earth, has triggered a series of “safe modes” since mid-August, ultimately leading mission managers to suspend the science mission Oct. 16.

Launched in June 2003, Mars Express entered orbit around the Red Planet six months later and has studied the planet with a high-resolution color camera, a ground-piercing radar, and a suite of other instruments.

Mars Express, which circles Mars in an oval-shaped elliptical orbit, initially entered safe mode due to a “complex combination of events relating to reading from and writing to memory modules” in the craft’s solid-state mass memory system, according to the European Space Agency. It was the mission’s first safe mode in three years.

After controllers executed a standard recovery sequence and resumed normal operations, Mars Express was again placed in safe mode, and engineers switched to a redundant B-side memory unit controller to avoid future anomalies.

But two more safe modes in September and October, plus another error that did not interrupt science operations, compelled managers to suspend the mission to find a solution to the recurring problem.

The errors in the B-side unit occurred during communication between two subsystems of the solid-state memory unit.

Controllers at the European Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany, are preparing a workaround to “allow at least partial resumption of science observations,” according to a posting on ESA’s website.

[Read More…]

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