Tag Archives: engineering

Chang’e-4 successfully lands on far side of Moon

The new colonial movement: China’s Chang’e-4 lander/rover has successfully landed on far side of Moon.

Early reports of a successful landing sparked confusion after state-run media China Daily and CGTN deleted tweets celebrating the mission. China Daily’s tweet said: ‘“China’s Chang’e 4 landed on the moon’s far side, inaugurating a new chapter in mankind’s lunar exploration history.”

Official confirmation of the landing came two hours later via state broadcaster CCTV, which said the lunar explorer had touched down at 10.26am (2.26am GMT). The Communist party-owned Global Times also said the probe had “successfully made the first-ever soft landing” on the far side of the moon.

No reason has been given for the deletion of the tweets, though I suspect they did so because they were simply premature.

Update: More information here, including images.

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“We have a snow-man!”

Ultima Thule, the snowman

The quote in the headline comes from Alan Stern, the principle scientist for New Horizons, during today’s press conference revealing the first high resolution images of Ultima Thule. The press release for this conference is now online. The image on the right is a reduced cropped version of the main release image today. If you click on it you can see the full resolution version.

The images reveal that Ultima Thule actually is two objects in contact with each other. In addition, the snowman description is apt, as it has a mottled appearance as if it was shaped roughly and somewhat gently over time. Tiny pebbles and rocks softly came together to form two snowballs that then eventually came to touch and join.

They describe this as the most primitive object ever observed. It is also dark, and red in color, like dark reddish dirt.

More images and data is still coming in, to be released in another press conference tomorrow.

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The 2018 global launch race plus predictions for 2019

In 2018 the global launch industry turned a significant corner. While there have been strong signs in 2016 and 2017 that we were about to see the arrival of a boom, it was not until this past year that we finally saw the beginnings of this boom.

Below is my updated launch graph showing what was accomplished in 2018. To put what was done in context, the graph shows all launches by every nation and private company for each year beginning in 1980, with 1968 added to provide a sense of what the launch industry was like during the height of the Cold War space race.

Before reading further, however, it is worthwhile to review what I wrote in my 2017 launch industry assessment, written in January 2018. My assessment then, as well as my predictions, provide some worthwhile context for understanding what actually happened this past year.
» Read more

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India’s 2019 space plans

The new colonial movement: In outlining India’s plans for space in 2019, the head of India’s space agency ISRO revealed that they are going to try to complete fourteen launches, more than one per month and a pace that would double that nation’s previous annual record.

For the last two years ISRO has been making this same prediction. They failed to come close in either year. I suspect however that in 2019 they will have better luck.

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Another image of Ultima Thule

Ultima Thule again

The image on the right was released during this morning’s first briefing outlining the successful confirmation of New Horizons’ fly-by of Ultima Thule (still on-going as I post this). It, along with other data, has provided an explanation for why the scientists have not detected a significant variation in brightness: Our view is looking down at the object’s poles

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.

They note that the highest resolution images will not arrive until February, though they do expect some good images by tomorrow.

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“We have a healthy spacecraft.”

The words above were just announced in the control room for New Horizons. They have confirmation that the spacecraft survived the fly-by of Ultima Thule, and is now ready to begin downloading the data it obtained.

It will take literally a year to get all of that data. They will be holding a first press conference within an hour to outline in greater detail the spacecraft’s status, followed by another briefing at 2 pm Eastern where they will likely release the first images.

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First faint image of Ultima Thule

Ultima Thule, first image

In anticipation of receiving data from the fly-by just past midnight last night, the New Horizons team has released the image above, taken 24 hours earlier.

Just over 24 hours before its closest approach to Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule, the New Horizons spacecraft has sent back the first images that begin to reveal Ultima’s shape. The original images have a pixel size of 6 miles (10 kilometers), not much smaller than Ultima’s estimated size of 20 miles (30 kilometers), so Ultima is only about 3 pixels across (left panel). However, image-sharpening techniques combining multiple images show that it is elongated, perhaps twice as long as it is wide (right panel). This shape roughly matches the outline of Ultima’s shadow that was seen in observations of the object passing in front of a star made from Argentina in 2017 and Senegal in 2018.

This object is definitely strangely shaped.

New Horizons is traveling fast, which is why we won’t get good images until practically the instant the fly-by happens. And the first downloads from that fly-by are due to arrive within the next two hours. Keep your fingers crossed that the spacecraft operated as programmed and captured Ultima Thule in all its weird glory.

One point about the sad state of journalism these days. Numerous media publications posted stories last night celebrating that fly-by, as if they knew it was a success. This is bunk. We won’t know what happened until this morning. To imply we do is the hallmark of fake news.

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OSIRIS-REx moves into close orbit with Bennu

OSIRIS-REx has successfully completed an eight second engine burn to place it into a close orbit with the asteroid Bennu.

Now, the spacecraft will circle Bennu about a mile (1.75 kilometers) from its center, closer than any other spacecraft has come to its celestial object of study. (Previously the closest orbit of a planetary body was in May 2016, when the Rosetta spacecraft orbited about four miles (seven kilometers) from the center of the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.) The comfortable distance is necessary to keep the spacecraft locked to Bennu, which has a gravity force only 5-millionths as strong as Earth’s. The spacecraft is scheduled to orbit Bennu through mid-February at a leisurely 62 hours per orbit.

There is a bit of hype here. Other spacecraft have gotten far closer (NEAR, Hayabusa-1, Hayabusa-2) but then retreated for a variety of reasons. What makes this different is the plan to stay this close while they compile detailed data about Bennu’s surface in preparation for touchdown to grab a sample.

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Juno images volcano plume on Io

Volcano plume on Io

Using several instruments, the Juno science team has successfully photographed an active volcano plume in Io’s polar regions. Two instruments measured the plume’s heat and radiation. Juno’s cameras meanwhile took the color image on the right. The bright spot on Io’s night side matches the location of the heat and radiation signatures from the other instruments.

JunoCam acquired the first images on Dec. 21 at 12:00, 12:15 and 12:20 coordinated universal time (UTC) before Io entered Jupiter’s shadow. The Images show the moon half-illuminated with a bright spot seen just beyond the terminator, the day-night boundary. “The ground is already in shadow, but the height of the plume allows it to reflect sunlight, much like the way mountaintops or clouds on the Earth continue to be lit after the sun has set,” explained Candice Hansen-Koharcheck, the JunoCam lead from the Planetary Science Institute.

This image is not the first time a spacecraft has caught an active volcanic plume on Io. In fact, practically the very first good images of Io during the Voyager 1 fly-by did this, confirming then that volcanoes are active on the Jupiter moon.

What this image further confirms however is how active Io really is. Volcanoes erupt there so continuously that it apparently isn’t that hard to catch one as it happens.

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Engineers adjust Chang’e-4’s orbit

The new colonial movement: Engineers have adjusted Chang’e-4’s lunar orbit in preparation for landing.on the Moon’s far side.

The probe has entered an elliptical lunar orbit, with the perilune at about 15 km and the apolune at about 100 km, at 8:55 a.m. Beijing Time, said CNSA.

Since the Chang’e-4 entered the lunar orbit on Dec. 12, the ground control center in Beijing has trimmed the probe’s orbit twice and tested the communication link between the probe and the relay satellite Queqiao, or Magpie Bridge, which is operating in the halo orbit around the second Lagrangian (L2) point of the earth-moon system.

The space engineers also checked the imaging instruments and ranging detectors on the probe to prepare for the landing.

They need to time the landing so that it comes down in the Moon’s early morning. This will not only provide better visuals, with shadows to see surface details, but more importantly will give them 14 Earth days before sunset to get settled on the surface and initiate rover operations.

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Watching New Horizons’ flyby of Ultima Thule

NASA has announced that the partial government shutdown will no longer prevent full coverage by the agency of the New Horizons’ fly-by of Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule just past midnight on January 1, 2019.

This entire shutdown is pure theater, and a joke. If the government was truly out of money, it would be impossible for NASA to suddenly obtain funds to finance a New Horizons’ fly-by broadcast. The problem is that legally the government should be out of money, as Congress has the power of the purse and has not approved funding. Unfortunately, we no longer obey the law, and so our government can now do whatever it wants, free from all legal constraints.

Meanwhile the article at the link provides some good information on watching the fly-by:

Though people can now continue to enjoy the coverage through NASA’s New Horizons twitter account and NASA TV, APL will continue providing coverage in their own YouTube channel, as well as with Stern’s personal twitter account and New Horizon’s account.

The twitter feeds will mostly be junk. I would focus on the streaming links.

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India’s government approves manned space program

The new colonial movement: India’s government yesterday approved the proposed manned space program put forth by ISRO, that nation’s space agency.

The Union Cabinet on Friday approved the Gaganyaan Programme with demonstration of Indian Human Spaceflight capability to low earth orbit for a mission duration ranging from one orbital period to a maximum of seven days. A human rated Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark III (GSLV MK-III) will be used to carry the orbital module which have the necessary provisions for sustaining a 3 member crew for the duration of the mission. Reportedly, India plans to call its astronauts “Vyomnauts”.

The total fund requirement for the programme is Rs 10,000 crore and will include the cost of technology development, flight hardware realization and essential infrastructure elements. So far, ISRO has spent Rs 173 crore in developing critical technologies needed for the for human space flight. Two unmanned flights and one manned flight will be undertaken as part of this programme.

The approval includes a deadline for the first manned mission of 40 months from today, or April 2022. This is an extremely tight schedule. I would not be surprised if they fail to meet it.

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China launches first of planned 320 communications satellite constellation

The new colonial movement: China today used its Long March 2D rocket to launch the first satellite in a proposed 320 satellite constellation designed to provide worldwide phone service.

The Hongyan constellation is composed of more than 320 satellites, along with data processing centers, and will be built in three stages. The orbital group will consist of 54 main satellites, accompanied by another 270 smaller satellites for coordination of the system.

Six or nine satellites will be launched before the end of 2020 for network testing. The 54 larger first phase satellites will be placed in orbit by the year 2023 and the 270 smaller satellites will be placed into orbits to supplement the main satellites.

Once completed, the satellite communication network will take the place of the ground-based network and allow a mobile phones to be connected everywhere on the planet, either in a remote desert or at sea, according to CASC. The project has drawn an investment of about 20 billion yuan (about 2.9 billion U.S. dollars) for its first phase, making it the largest investment for a single commercial aerospace program in China.

This constellation is essentially in direct competition with Iridium.

This is likely China’s last launch for 2018. It is also likely to be the last launch this year, since the ULA launch that had been planned for December 30 has now been pushed back a week. The leaders in the launch race:

38 China
21 SpaceX
15 Russia
11 Europe (Arianespace)
8 ULA

In the national rankings, China tops the U.S. 38 to 34. It also came only two launches short of meeting its ambitious goal of 40 launches in 2018, an achievement that pretty much doubled its previous launch record.

I am preparing my annual launch report. Stay tuned.

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Russia faces launchpad bottleneck in 2020

Because of the decommissioning of one of their two Soyuz launchpads at Baikonur in late 2019, the Russians will have a significant launchpad bottleneck in 2020.

According to the official, the so-called Gagarin’s Start launch launchpad at the site number 1 would be put out of exploitation due to the upcoming decommissioning of the Soyuz-FG rocket.

The source noted that a large number of Soyuz launches planned for 2020 was related to the implementation of the OneWeb internet satellite constellation project, which would require up to eight launches. Moreover, from five to seven launches of manned missions on Soyuz and Progress spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS), as well as several launches of unmanned spacecraft have been planned.

The source continued by saying there was a “bottleneck” in the capacity of the testing facility at the launch site 31, which amounted to 15 rockets per year.

It appears that this limitation of 15 launches per year is going to put a crimp on something. Since the Russians will make money on the OneWeb launches, those will get first priority. What next? The unnamed additional launches almost certainly include some military satellites, as well as communications, Glonass GPS, and Earth resource satellites needed by Russia. Will they get sacrificed to maintain Russian launches to ISS? If the U.S. is no longer flying our astronauts on their rockets and paying them for it, I can see them cutting back here to fly some of those other satellites.

Either way, for Russia to be cutting back on launch sites at a time when the rocket industry appears to be booming is a clear sign of big problems there. I suspect that they had intended the Vostochny spaceport to pick up this slack, but the corruption and delays there apparently make that impossible. Moreover, they have lost most of their commercial business, and appear unable to figure out ways to recapture it.

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Musk tweets peek at Starship hopper

Starship test hopper

Capitalism in space: Elon Musk this week tweeted an image of the Starship test hopper, adding that they hope to begin test flights by March.

“This test hopper is at full body diameter of 9m / 30 ft, just not full height. Super Heavy will be full height & diameter,” Musk tweeted, indicating that the company will go directly to building a full-scale version of the rocket booster, rather than a truncated test version.

It seems to me that Musk continues to embarrass all other rocket companies, both private and governmental, with his effective use of current technology to innovate and produce new designs. While everyone else seems locked into building the same old things, his company is using what it knows to try to build something smarter and more efficient.

SpaceX’s track record suggests that it will do exactly what it is trying to do, even if it likely takes longer than they predict. Others should take heed, or they will all get left behind.

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India aims for 24 launches in 2019

The new colonial movement: India has set a goal of two launches per month in 2019, a rate that would more than triple its previous high of seven.

Though the article does not specify, I suspect that a large percentage of these launches will be suborbital test flights. Nonetheless, this goal is ambitious, and indicates a serious commitment to advancing their space effort.

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Russian Soyuz launches 28 satellites

A Russian Soyuz rocket today launched 28 satellites, the bulk of which were commercial smallsats.

The primary payload was two Russian Earth observations satellites.

The leaders in the 2018 launch race:

37 China
21 SpaceX
15 Russia
11 Europe (Arianespace)
8 ULA

This should close out Russia’s launch total for the year, that country’s lowest yearly total since the very beginnings of the space age in the 1960s.

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Dried mud cracks on Mars?

Mud cracks on Mars?

Cool image time! The image to the right, cropped and rotated to post here, was one of the uncaptioned photographs in the December Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) image release. If you click on the image you can see the entire photograph. I have cropped the most interesting area, though cracks can be seen in other areas in the image.

What we appear to have here is a darker lower valley filled with dried mud, which over time has cracked as it dried. At its edges there appear to be ripples, almost like one sees on the beach as waves wash the shore. The perimeter slopes even show darker streaks as if the water in some places lapped up the slopes, and in others flowed downward into the valley.

Later, several meteorite impacts occurred, the largest of which produced concentric dried cracks on its outside perimeter. This impact also provides a rough idea of the depth of the mud in this valley.

Mud of course suggests that this lower valley once was filled with water. Was it? It is not possible now to come to a firm conclusion, but this image’s location shown by the red dot in the overview map below and to the right, provides a clue that strengthens this hypothesis.
» Read more

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China launches military satellite

The new colonial movement: China today used its Long March 3C rocket to launch a military communications satellite.

This was China’s 37th successful launch in 2018, only three launches less than their predicted 40 launches for the year. It almost doubles their previous record of 20 in 2016.

The leaders in the 2018 launch race:

37 China
21 SpaceX
14 Russia
11 Europe (Arianespace)
8. ULA

China leads in the national rankings, 37 to 34, over the U.S.

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SpaceX successfully launches GPS satellite

Capitalism in space: In launching an Air Force GPS satellite today, SpaceX successfully completed its 21st launch of 2018, the most ever achieved in a single year by a private company, ever, beating the record the company set last year by three.

The company has been so successful that many will take this achievement for granted. They should not.Ten years ago SpaceX barely existed. In that short time it has revolutionized the rocket industry, and recaptured for the U.S. the commercial market share that was lost by the older American rocket companies to Russia and Europe, because they were fearful and lazy and refused to compete.

The result however has not been zero sum. Launches in total have increased, and the potential for a revitalization of space exploration for everyone has not been as good since the 1960s. I know this will make some groan, but the sky now is literally the limit.

You can watch a replay of today’s SpaceX launch here.

The leaders in the 2018 launch race:

36 China
21 SpaceX
14 Russia
11 Europe (Arianespace)
8 ULA

China leads in the national rankings 36 to 34 over the U.S. At the moment only one more U.S. launch is scheduled, so it appears China will hold that lead. Stay tuned for my annual assessment of the launch industry, coming the first week in January.

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OSIRIS-REx flies over Bennu’s north pole

Bennu's north pole

Cool movie time! OSIRIS-REx has completed its first planned fly-over of Bennu, this time above its north pole, and the science team has released a short movie showing part of that fly-over. I have embedded the movie below the fold.

This series of MapCam images was taken over the course of about four hours and 19 minutes on Dec. 4, 2018, as OSIRIS-REx made its first pass over Bennu’s north pole. The images were captured as the spacecraft was inbound toward Bennu, shortly before its closest approach of the asteroid’s pole. As the asteroid rotates and grows larger in the field of view, the range to the center of Bennu shrinks from about 7.1 to 5.8 miles (11.4 to 9.3 km).

They have four more fly-overs of the asteroid’s poles and equator as they assemble a detailed map of its surface.
» Read more

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China launches first prototype of new low-cost communications constellation

The new colonial movement China today launched the first prototype Hongyun communications satellite.

Developed by the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC), this is the fist satellite of a vast space-based communications network capable of covering every corner on the Earth, including the Arctic and Antarctica. The satellite mission is to verify low-orbit broadband communication technologies to be used on the Hongyun satellite constellation.

Announced by CASIC in September 2016, the Hongyun project has the goal of building a space-based communications network of 156 communications satellites into low Earth orbit, at an altitude of 160 to 2,000 km. Each satellite of the network will be able to transmit 500 megabytes of data per second. It will become operational in 2022.

These satellites, aimed at lowering cost, appear to be in direct competition with many of the new smallsat constellations being developed in the west by SpaceX, OneWeb, and others.

The leaders in the 2018 launch race:

36 China
20 SpaceX
14 Russia
11 Europe (Arianespace)
8 ULA

China has widened its lead over the U.S. in the national rankings, 36 to 33, and has likely now clinched that lead for the year. Stay tuned for my annual full report on the state of the launch industry in 2018.

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FCC fines company $900K for unapproved satellite launch

The FCC has issued a $900K fine against the smallsat company Swarm for its unlicensed launch in January on an Indian rocket of four smallsats.

Along with paying a massive fine, Swarm has agreed to submit reports to the FCC before every satellite launch it wants to make for the next three years. These reports must include all of the details about the launch vehicle that will carry the satellites, the time and location of the launch, and contact information for who is coordinating the launch. And Swarm has to do this a lot, too. Reports need to be submitted within five days of Swarm purchasing a ride on a rocket, or within 45 days of the flight. Additional reports must be submitted when the satellites are shipped to be integrated on the rocket, whenever the satellites are actually integrated, and around the time the launch is supposed to take place.

Within the next two months, Swarm must also establish its own “compliance plan” and appoint a compliance officer to make sure the company adheres to all of the regulations surrounding a satellite launch. This entails crafting clearly defined procedures and checklists that every employee must follow to confirm that the FCC’s licensing requirements are being met.

I have very mixed feelings about this. While it is important that the FCC make sure U.S. satellites are compliant with the Outer Space Treaty and that satellite makers and launch companies do not do things willy-nilly without some common sense coordination, this settlement, with its complex bureaucratic paperwork requirements, strikes me more as a power play by the agency to tell everyone that the government will rule here.

At the same time, I can understand the FCC’s concern. We are about to see a smallsat revolution, with tens of thousands of these satellites being built and launched by numerous big and small companies. The FCC wanted it very clear to everyone the need to get that licensing done properly. This settlement makes that clear.

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Russia’s Proton launches military satellite

Russia today successfully launched a military communications satellite using its Proton rocket.

This was only the second Proton launch this year, a rocket that was once Russia’s commercial workhorse with a launch rate more akin to what SpaceX has today.

The leaders in the 2018 launch standings:

35 China
20 SpaceX
14 Russia
11 Europe (Arianespace)
8 ULA

China leads the U.S. in the national rankings, 35 to 33.

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No rotational light curve from Ultima Thule?

Data from New Horizons as it is quickly approaching Ultima Thule has found that even though the object is expected to be oblong or even two objects it has shown absolutely no variation in light as it rotates.

Even though scientists determined in 2017 that the Kuiper Belt object isn’t shaped like a sphere – that it is probably elongated or maybe even two objects – they haven’t seen the repeated pulsations in brightness that they’d expect from a rotating object of that shape. The periodic variation in brightness during every rotation produces what scientists refer to as a light curve.

“It’s really a puzzle,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute. “I call this Ultima’s first puzzle – why does it have such a tiny light curve that we can’t even detect it? I expect the detailed flyby images coming soon to give us many more mysteries, but I did not expect this, and so soon.”

They have several theories, all implausible, to explain this. It could be they are looking at the object’s pole. Or maybe a dust cloud or numerous tumbling moons surround the object and hide the light variation.

Fortunately, we shall have an answer to this mystery in less than two weeks, when New Horizons zips past.

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Chang’e-4 establishes link with Queqiao relay satellite

The new colonial movement: Chang’e-4 has successfully established a communications link with its Queqiao relay satellite.

This success puts China one step closer to its January attempt to soft land Chang’e-4’s lander on the far side of the Moon. Once on the surface, Chang’e-4 must be able to communicate with Queqiao in order to relay data to Earth.

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Drilled Soyuz returns three astronauts from ISS

Three astronauts successfully returned to Earth today, using the descent module of the Soyuz capsule whose now abandoned orbital module had been found to have a drill hole.

They are bringing back the samples of the exterior patchwork of the drill hole, obtained during a spacewalk on December 11. Hopefully we will know a bit more about this apparent sabotage soon.

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InSight installs seismometer on Martian surface

InSight has successfully placed its first instrument, its seismometer, on Martian surface.

They aren’t yet ready to start gathering data, however.

In the coming days, the InSight team will work on leveling the seismometer, which is sitting on ground that is tilted 2 to 3 degrees. The first seismometer science data should begin to flow back to Earth after the seismometer is in the right position.

But engineers and scientists at JPL, the French national space agency Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES) and other institutions affiliated with the SEIS team will need several additional weeks to make sure the returned data are as clear as possible. For one thing, they will check and possibly adjust the seismometer’s long, wire-lined tether to minimize noise that could travel along it to the seismometer. Then, in early January, engineers expect to command the robotic arm to place the Wind and Thermal Shield over the seismometer to stabilize the environment around the sensors.

They plan on deploying the heat probe (which will drill down about 16 feet) in January.

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Curiosity’s future travels

MRO image of Curiosity's future travels

In the December release of images from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), there was one image entitled “Monitor Region Near Curiosity Rover.” To the right is a reduced, cropped, and rotated section of that image, annotated by me to show Curiosity’s future planned route (indicated by the yellow line). If you click on the image you can see the untouched full resolution version.

Curiosity’s journey has not yet brought it onto the terrain shown in this image. (For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.) The rover is right now just off the left edge of the photograph, on the white ridge dubbed Vera Rubin Ridge visible in the uppermost left. This week it completed the last planned drill sampling on that ridge, and it will soon descend off the ridge and begin heading along the yellow route up the mountain. The white dots along its future route are the locations of recurring slope lines, believed to be seasonal seeps of brine coming from below and causing gentle landslides that darken the surface. As you can see, they hope to get very close to the first seep, and will observe the second from across the canyon from a distance of about 1,200 feet.

The peak of Mount Sharp is quite a distance to the south, far beyond the bottom of the photograph. Even in these proposed travels the rover will remain in the mountain’s lowest foothills, though the terrain will be getting considerably more dramatic.

Below is a full resolution section of the image showing the spectacular canyon to the south of that second seep. This is where Curiosity will be going, a deep canyon about 1,500 feet across and probably as deep, its floor a smooth series of curved layers, reminiscent of The Wave in northern Arizona. The canyon appears to show evidence of water flow down its slopes, but that is unproven.
» Read more

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