Tag Archives: spaceflight

Streaky Mars: Slope streaks and recurring slope lineae

New recurring lineae on Mars
Click for source paper [pdf].

Numerous presentations at this week’s 50th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas have focused on two different changing features on the Martian surface, dubbed slope streaks and recurring slope lineae (or RSLs, an example of an unnecessary and unwieldy acronym that I avoid like the plague).

These apparently are considered two different phenomenon (with some overlap), something I had not recognized previously. For example, one presentation [pdf] this week described slope streaks as:

…gravity-driven dark or light-toned features that form throughout the martian year in high-albedo and low-thermal-inertia equatorial regions of Mars. The distinctive features originate from point sources on slopes steeper than ~20°, follow the topographic gradient, extend or divert around small obstacles, and propagate up to maximum lengths of a few kilometers. The streaks brighten with time, sometimes become brighter than their surroundings, and fade away over timescales of decades. [emphasis mine]

An example can be seen here. This is in contrast to the recurring slope lineae, shown in the image above, which another paper [pdf] described as:

…dark linear features that occur on the surface of steep slopes in the mid-latitudes of Mars. These areas are warm, occasionally exceeding temperatures of 273-320 K. [Lineae] recur over multiple years, growing during warm seasons and fading away during colder seasons. Their apparent temperature dependency raises the possibility that liquid water is involved in their formation. [emphasis mine]

I have highlighted the key differences. While slope streaks are long lived and change slowly, lineae change with the Martian seasons. And the slope streaks appear to exist at lower latitudes. These difference means that the formation process of each must be also different.

The problem is that scientists still don’t know what causes either, though they have many theories, involving both wet and dry processes.

Most of the presentations at the conference this week focused on the recurring lineae, which I suspect is because of their seasonal aspect. This feature strongly suggests a water-related source for the lineae, and everyone who studies Mars is always focused on finding sources on Mars where liquid water might be found. Also, slope streaks appear more often in dunes, which also strongly suggests a dry process. One paper, however, did a comparison study of lineae with one specific kind of dune slope streak to see if the freatures might be related.

The most interesting result [pdf] for all these papers documented the apparent increase in recurring lineae following the global dust storm last year. The image at the top of that post is from this paper, and shows a fresh lineae where none had been prior to the storm. From the paper’s abstract:
» Read more

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A review of the Trump administrations’s SLS/Orion reprogramming options

Link here. This is a nice summary of the technical and political options being considered for the first unmanned Orion test flight, presently scheduled for June 2020, including replacing SLS with commercial launch rockets.

The article also noted that NASA is also looking at simplifying that test flight, because both SLS and Orion are behind schedule and this would make using a commercial rocket easier.

The currently baselined EM-1 [the test] mission would launch an uncrewed Orion spacecraft on a trans-lunar injection (TLI) trajectory; once released from the launch vehicle, it will fly solo for the first time. The Orion would then make two large engine burns to insert itself into a Distant Retrograde Orbit (DRO) around the Moon. Depending on the time of year, Orion would stay in the DRO for a half or one and a half orbits before making two more large engine burns to return to Earth. Preliminary analysis indicates a June, 2020, launch of the full-up mission would fall into the “long-class” category, with Orion staying in a DRO with a twelve-day long period for one and a half laps and flying a five-week long flight.

Prior to Administrator Bridenstine’s announcement of the alternate launch study for EM-1, notes passed to [this website] indicated that NASA Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) Associate Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier had sent out a memo in early March indicating that studies to look at ways to keep the EM-1 launch in 2020 could not compromise any of the mission objectives; besides that, everything else was on the table.

The highest priority objective of the EM-1 mission is a lunar-velocity reentry test of the redesigned Orion heatshield, along with a full end-to-end test of the re-entry sequence and an in-space demonstration of Orion systems, many of which are flying for the first time.

Although Bridenstine’s public comments stressed flying EM-1 as a lunar orbit mission, there has been speculation that launching Orion out to near lunar distance without attempting either a lunar orbit or a lunar flyby could meet the highest priority objectives. Dropping the lunar orbit requirement or lunar flyby options would also relax launch opportunity constraints created by flying to the Moon and could perhaps reduce launch vehicle performance requirements enough to drop the [Earth orbit rendezvous] proposal and [docking] development work. [emphasis mine]

To use commercial rockets and still go into lunar orbit would require at least two commercial launches to get the required material up to orbit. It would also require developing Orion’s docking software now, something NASA had not planned to do until prior to Orion’s third flight several years hence. Avoiding lunar orbit means they can use a single Falcon Heavy launch and avoid these issues.

The highlighted phrase above indicates the most important priority of the test flight. This does not require lunar orbit. In fact, the Apollo mission tested its heat shield without leaving Earth orbit, and Orion can do the same.

It is still bothersome to read how haphazard NASA’s SLS/Orion program remains. They aren’t doing enough testing, their future flights are always in flux for political, schedule, and budgetary reasons, and they always seem to be in too much of a hurry to fly humans on very unproven vehicles. If NASA’s corrupt safety panel applied the same standards to SLS/Orion as it does to SpaceX and Boeing, the whole program would be shut down. It does not, because safety isn’t really its purpose. That panel’s goal is to serve NASA’s bureaucracy, and to protect its biggest projects (SLS/Orion) from any competition.

As for replacing SLS for that first Orion test flight, we shall see. The political forces opposing such a move are vast, and wield a lot of power.

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Confirmed: Ryugu is a rubble pile

Close-up of Ryugu's surface
Click for source paper [pdf].

At a special session today dedicated to results from the Hayabusa-2 probe to the asteroid Ryugu at the 50th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas, scientists confirmed from numerous data and images that the asteroid has a low density, is covered with boulders and pebbles, is very porous, and is thus a rubble pile that is held together by gravity, barely.

From their lead presentation [pdf]:

The estimated total porosity is even higher than that of rubble-pile asteroid Itokawa (44 ± 4%), indicating that asteroid Ryugu is also a rubble pile. This is consistent with a theory arguing that all Solar System bodies with diameter of ~1 km should be rubble piles and might have formed from reaccumulation of fragments generated by catastrophic disruption events of ~100-km sized parent bodies.

They also posit that the asteroid’s diamond shape is caused by the asteroid’s 3.5 hour rotation, which causes its weak rubble pile structure to be easily pulled to the equator, and then outward.

Another paper [pdf] did crater counts, and found that there are fewer large craters than one would expect.

The density of large craters (D>100 m) on Ryugu is lower than the empirical saturation level and its slope is steeper than that of the saturated distribution, suggesting that craters larger than 100 m are not saturated and the size distribution reflects the crater production function. However, craters smaller than 100 m are significantly under-saturated, suggesting that some crater erasure processes such as seismic shaking and armoring effect are active on the Ryugu surface. Based on cratering chronology model for the main belt, the surface age of Ryugu is estimated to be 5–200 [million years] from the size–frequency distribution of craters larger than 100 m.

In other words, this rubble pile is constantly being shaken by its rotation and time and later impacts, which steadily rewrites the surface.

If this asteroid was headed to Earth, I imagine the only safe solution to prevent disaster would be to slowly and gently deflect it so it only flies past. To do this will require an arrival far in advance of the schedule impact, to give time for the deflection process to work.

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Snow on Mars?

Snow on Mars?
Click to see full image.

At today’s presentations at the 50th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas, scientists showed images and data [pdf] suggesting that many of the Martian gullies found on cliff faces are formed when the dust layer protecting underlying snow gets blown away and the exposed snow/ice then melts.

The image on the left was taken by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) in 2009, and has been cropped to post here. The white streaks are what they suggest is exposed ice/snow.

From their paper [pdf]
» Read more

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Test drone maps ice cave in Iceland

Engineers have tested a prototype lidar-equipped drone by flying it through a lava tube in Iceland and using it to automatically map the tube.

While a cave-exploring drone on Earth may use propellers, free-flying spacecraft exploring caves on the Moon, where there is practically no atmosphere, or in the thin air of high altitude lava tubes on Mars’ giant volcanoes, would have to use small thrusters. The mission of the terrestrial drone deployed at the Lofthellir Ice Cave focused on validating the idea of using a drone-equipped LiDAR to safely navigate and accurately map rock and ice inside a dark lava tube in the absence of GPS or any prior map.

Under a research contract with NASA, Astrobotic has developed a custom navigation software product, known as AstroNav, to give drones and small free-flying spacecraft the ability to autonomously explore and map subterranean environments. AstroNav employs both stereo vision and LiDAR, works without GPS or previously stored maps, and can operate in real-time while a novel environment is explored at a high rate of speed.

…”The Astrobotic drone and LiDAR performed exactly as we had hoped, and was able to help us map the Lofthellir Lava Tube in 3D within minutes” says Lee. “We now have a highly accurate model of the shape and dimensions of the cave, and of the configuration of its many rocky and icy features, such as rock falls, ice columns, and micro-glaciers.”

The concept is an excellent one, especially for exploring the caves and pits of Mars. This test however only checked out the lidar. A drone that could do this on either Mars or the Moon does not yet exist.

I have posted their video of the flight below the fold.

Note: Thanks to reader Eddie Willers for noting that I mistakenly located this research in Greenland, not Iceland. Post now corrected.
» Read more

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A rock on Bennu

A rock on Bennu
Click for full image (which is rotated 180 degrees).

Cool image time! The OSIRIS-REx science team today released a close-up image of the surface of the asteroid Bennu. The image on the right is a cropped and rotated section of that image, focusing on the image’s star, its largest rock.

The boulders on Bennu’s surface sport a variety of surface textures, from smooth, to hummocky, striated, and crumbly “cauliflower” in nature. The large boulder in the image center is ~92 ft (~28 m) across and has a somewhat round shape, though many smaller boulders surrounding it are very angular. Some of these appear to be fragments that may have disaggregated from the central boulder and display layering effects that may reflect some of the properties of their mineral composition. Other boulders show signs of surface exfoliation and fractures that may have been caused by impacts, mechanical weathering, and other forms of rock breakdown active on Bennu’s surface.

The image was taken from less than a mile away, and shows a spot near the asteroid’s south pole.

Why the larger boulder has a rounded look, but the pebbles around it are jagged, is a puzzle.

The science team also revealed today that they have detected plumes of particles being released from the asteroid’s surface. They have also found Bennu to present them with the same problem faced by the Hayabusa-2 team at Ryugu: The asteroid is far rougher than expected.

The higher-than-expected density of boulders means that the mission’s plans for sample collection, also known as Touch-and-Go (TAG), need to be adjusted. The original mission design was based on a sample site that is hazard-free, with an 82-foot (25-meter) radius. However, because of the unexpectedly rugged terrain, the team hasn’t been able to identify a site of that size on Bennu. Instead, it has begun to identify candidate sites that are much smaller in radius.

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Hayabusa-2 schedules explosion on Ryugu

The Hayabusa-2 science team has scheduled April 5 for when it will use the spacecraft to fire an explosive device into Ryugu to create a crater and debris cloud.

The probe is scheduled to detach a device loaded with explosives some 500 meters away from Ryugu. The device will set off the explosives using a timer some 40 minutes later and launch a copper “impactor” weighing about 2 kilograms into the asteroid’s surface.

The target point is several hundreds of meters away from where the space probe first touched down. The mission will require the spacecraft to move quickly to the other side of the asteroid so it won’t get hit by flying shards from the blast. A detached camera will shoot the moment of impact.

JAXA will analyze the size and shape of the crater, and how rocks fly off in a bid to collect underground samples for possible clues to the origin of the solar system.

This is different than the touchdown last month, as the spacecraft itself will not get close to the asteroid.

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Cost for Mars 2020 rover up 15%

Because of cost overruns in building three instruments for the Mars 2020 rover, its total budget will rise by 15%, forcing NASA to trim budgets elsewhere in its planetary program.

There are small efficiencies to be gained internally in Mars 2020, Glaze says, which, like its predecessor Curiosity, is being developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. Some work can be postponed, some timelines tightened; the end of the Opportunity rover, which expired late last year on Mars, will help. But it is expected the costs will largely be borne by trims to the operations of existing Mars missions and funds the agency sets aside for future missions, including the return of the rock samples that Mars 2020 will collect. “We tried to spread it so no one is feeling all of the pain,” Glaze says.

For a government program costing almost $2.5 billion, this overage is remarkably small. What is more significant is that the rover appears on schedule for launch in July 2020.

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Mars likely has many large and extensive cave systems

Mamers Valles

More caves on Mars! This week the Lunar and Planetary Institute and the Johnson Space Center are jointly holding the 50th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas. I have been going over the program, and will be posting reviews of some of the more interesting results all this week.

We begin with caves, which should not be surprising to my regular readers. As a caver who also knows their value for future space colonists, I am always attracted to new discoveries of cave passages on other worlds. Today’s however is a doozy.

The image to the right is of Mamers Valles on Mars, what scientists have dubbed a fretted valley, a common feature in the transition zone between the low altitude northern plains and the southern highlands. It comes from a paper [pdf] with the typically unexciting scientific title, “Fretted channels and closed depressions in northern Arabia Terra, Mars: Origins and implications for subsurface hydrologic activity.”

What the scientists really means here is that their research strongly suggests that Mars has a very large and very extensive number of underground drainage systems, which have caused collapses on the surface that often resemble meandering river canyons, such as seen above. As they explain:
» Read more

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DARPA’s satellite servicing mission adrift

Capitalism in space? DARPA’s program to test a satellite servicing mission appears in serious and complex trouble with the termination by Maxar (previously called SSL) of its contract to build the structure, or “bus”, of the robot.

What makes this more complicated is that the company building the actual servicing payload is continuing its work.

While Maxar will no longer be providing the satellite bus, work on the servicing payload continues. Among the companies involved in that effort is Praxis, a company handling planning for mission operations of the RSGS servicing system, such as how the system will safely grapple the target satellite. “For our day-to-day operations, that hasn’t really affected us. We’re pretty far along on the payload development,” said Tony Marzi, general manager of Praxis, during a presentation at the MIT New Space Age Conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology here March 15.

DARPA is thus calling for proposals to launch this payload.

The irony here is that this DARPA project was under criticism from the start, even to the point that a competing satellite servicing company, Orbital ATK, sued the agency. That company, now part of Northrop Grumman, was building its own privately funded servicing robot, and considered DARPA’s effort to be unfair in that it provided direct government subsidies to its competitors.

While Orbital ATK lost its suit, it now appears it has won the competition — assuming it eventually launches its own mission.

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OneWeb raises $1.25 billion

Capitalism in space: Following the launch of the first six satellites for its 650 satellite constellation to provide worldwide internet services, OneWeb today announced that it has successfully raised $1.25 billion in new investment capital.

…it has secured its largest fundraising round to date with the successful raise of $1.25 billion in new capital. This brings the total funds raised to $3.4 billion. This round was led by SoftBank Group Corp., Grupo Salinas, Qualcomm Technologies Inc., and the Government of Rwanda.

The new funds, following the successful first launch of OneWeb’s satellites, enable the company to accelerate the development of the first truly global communications network by 2021.

…OneWeb’s satellites, produced through its joint venture with Airbus doing business as “OneWeb Satellites”, will ramp-up production this spring at its new, state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in Exploration Park, Florida. Following the company’s successful launch of satellites on February 27th, OneWeb will embark on the largest satellite launch campaign in history. Starting in Q4, OneWeb will begin monthly launches of more than 30 satellites at a time, creating an initial constellation of 650 satellites to enable full global coverage. After this first phase, OneWeb will add more satellites to its constellation to meet growing demands.

This puts OneWeb significantly ahead of everyone else, including SpaceX, in the race to launch the first space-based system for providing internet services. Their planned launch pace also illustrates why there is a flood of new smallsat rocket companies. They, and others, have a clear need for launch services, which presently cannot be provided by the existing launch companies.

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First SpaceX Starship Hopper tests this week?

Capitalism in space: According to this news story on Sunday, SpaceX could attempt its first Starship Hopper tests this week.

A sheriff hand-delivered road closure notices to residents on Friday, according to a local resident. The document warned locals that SpaceX will “conduct testing” as soon as Monday, March 18.

The article also cites a flurry of tweets about the hopper that Elon Musk made on Sunday. Unfortunately, Musk’s tweets do not say anything about tests this week.

Regardless, it appears that SpaceX might actually be close to beating the schedule it announced for these tests back in November, when Musk said they were aiming for tests in June. If so, this would be a remarkable achievement, one that is almost unheard of in the aerospace launch industry.

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ULA’s Delta 4 rocket launches Air Force communications satellite

Capitalsm in space: ULA yesterday used its Delta 4 rocket to successfully place in orbit an Air Force communications satellite.

This is one of the last launches of the the Delta 4 member in the Delta rocket family.

The mission marked the next-to-last flight of the Delta 4 rocket variant with a single first stage core — known as the Delta 4-Medium — as ULA begins retiring segments of its launcher family in preparation for the debut of the new Vulcan booster, which the company says will be less expensive than the existing Atlas and Delta fleet.

Gary Wentz, ULA’s vice president of government and commercial programs, said the company’s decision in 2014 to retire the Delta 4-Medium was intended to reduce the company’s costs. “We started looking at the products that we were providing, and found that maintaining these two families of launch vehicles, both the Delta and the Atlas, through this period decreased our flight rate, and therefore increased our costs,” Wentz said. “That really drove it, based on the competitive industry we’re in, trying to maximize our competitiveness.”

The Delta 4-Medium family provides the same range of lift capability as the less expensive Atlas 5 rocket. The Delta 4-Heavy, which will remain operational through at least the early-to-mid-2020s, uses three Delta 4 first stage cores bolted together to haul heavier payloads to orbit than any of the Atlas 5 configurations.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

3 SpaceX
3 China
2 Europe (Arianespace)
2 Russia
2 ULA

In the national rankings, the U.S. has now widened its lead on China to 5 to 3.

Note that two different American companies are matching the launch numbers of three other whole countries. This I think illustrates well the power of freedom and competition. Rather than have a single nationalized rocket system (as was attempted in the 2000s when Boeing and Lockheed Martin created ULA, then the only American rocket company), the U.S. has transitioned back to its roots, allowing freedom to produce multiple companies competing for both private and government business. This has reduced costs, encouraged innovation, and ended up producing more jobs and wealth.

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The Washington Empire strikes back!

In response to the revelation earlier this week by NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine that the agency is considering replacing SLS with commercial rockets for Orion’s first unmanned lunar test mission in June 2020, the swamp in Washington quickly rallied to SLS’s defense.

Not surprisingly, porkmeister Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) led the charge:

“While I agree that the delay in the SLS launch schedule is unacceptable, I firmly believe that SLS should launch the Orion,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said in a statement to SpaceNews.

This was followed by statements from industry groups and other lawmakers, all supporting SLS. Next came Bridenstine himself, who emphasized his strong support of SLS at a conference yesterday, then issued a memo to NASA employees reiterating that support.

As far as I can tell, the only way SLS will eventually die is when private companies begin doing things that SLS is designed for, for less money and faster, and for profit. And that won’t happen if this Washington swamp has its say. Rather than see an American success, these cronies have made it clear in the past decade that they will work to squelch any such success if poses any threat to their boondoggles. And it appears now that they are moving to block Bridenstine’s suggestion for that first Orion flight.

Whether this new big government campaign against private enterprise succeeds however is not clear.
» Read more

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Rogozin: Russia and U.S. to use both countrys’ manned capsules to ISS

According to statements made today by Roscosmos head Dmitri Rogozin, Russia and the United States now plan to send their astronauts to ISS using both the Russian and American capsules.

“We agreed with the NASA leadership to preserve our agreements and principles of cooperation. Astronauts will fly on board Soyuz, and we will use US spacecraft,” he said, adding that US spacecraft will need to get certification first.

According to the Roscosmos head, this will create an alternative in manned space missions to the International Space Station.

This suggests that once the U.S. commercial capsules are operational the two countries will return to the situation that existed when the shuttle was flying, with Americans sometimes flying on Russian spacecraft and Russians sometimes flying on American spacecraft. Under that set-up however, there was no direct payment by the U.S. for its seats on those Russian spacecraft, since it was a straight embargo deal.

Will this be the case now? We shall see. NASA for the past two decades has increasingly worked to keep the Russian space effort operating, sometimes even to the detriment of American efforts.

If Russia no longer gets money from the U.S. for its space flights it simply might not be able to afford to fly. We really won’t need them, but for a number of reasons we might decide to pay them to keep them in the game, both from a foreign policy perspective as well as some underhanded motives that are divorced from considerations of the national interest.

Unfortunately, separating these two issues has become increasingly difficult, especially because of the spreading corruption that is taking over the Washington establishment. This establishment more and more cares little for this country. Instead, it puts its own interests and power first, often in direct violation of the Constitution and the fundamental principles that founded the United States. Under these conditions that establishment might decide it is better to help the Russians, even if it hurts America and its citizens.

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A pond on Bennu

Pond on Bennu
Click for full resolution.

The OSIRIS-REx science team has released new high resolution images of one particular area on Bennu’s northern hemisphere. The image on the right, cropped and reduced to post here, shows what they label a “pond of regolith,” seen as the relatively smooth area in the upper left.

This is not literally a pond, but instead is a low-lying spot where smaller particles have settled over time, producing a flattish area that looks, and in some ways, resembles a pond or puddle, only in this case the material isn’t water but fine-grained dust or pebbles.

On March 19 the science team will be presenting their initial results at a special session at the 50th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas. That same day they will hold a press conference summarizing the most interesting aspects of those results. Stay tuned.

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Chinese lunar rover and lander enter their third lunar night

The Chinese lunar rover Yutu-2 and its lander Chang’e-4 have gone into hibernation as they enter their third lunar night on the far side of the Moon.

According to Chinese news reports, both spacecraft have now exceeded their nominal lifespan.

With all systems and payloads operating well, the Yutu-2 team will continue roving and science data collection on lunar day 4 of the Chang’e-4 mission, according to a [Chinese] announcement.

Yutu-2 added 43 meters to its overall drive distance in its third day of activities, continuing a path to the northwest of the landing site, which was recently named ‘Statio Tianhe’ by the International Astronomical Union. The rover just covered seven meters between waking for lunar day 3 on Feb. 28 and Mar. 3, during which time it navigated carefully toward a 20 centimeter diameter rock in order to analyze the specimen with an infrared and visible light spectrometer to determine its origin.

I am struck by how tentative the Chinese and their rover appear. The first Russian lunar rover, Luna 17, traveled 6.5 miles in eleven months. The second, Luna 21, traveled 23 miles in four months. At the pace Yutu-2 is setting, it will not come close to these mileages. Moreover, my impression of Chinese space technology in the past decade has been that it is quite robust. This tentativeness thus surprises me. Maybe because this is a government project they are simply covering their butts should something go wrong, and thus making believe the rover is more delicate than it really is.

As Scotty on Star Trek once said, “Always under predict, then over perform.” We might be seeing that pattern here.

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Curiosity has another computer crash

Since March 6 all activity from Curiosity seemed to stop, with no images and no science team updates. The reason? The rover had experienced another computer crash and reboot:

Curiosity experienced a computer reset on its Side-A computer on Wednesday, March 6, 2019 (Sol 2,339), that triggered the rover’s safe mode. This was the second computer reset in three weeks; both resets were related to the computer’s memory.

The mission team decided to switch from the Side-A computer back to the rover’s Side-B computer, which it operated on for most of the mission until November of 2018. Side-B recently experienced its own memory issue; the team has since further diagnosed the matter, reformatting the Side-B computer to isolate areas of “bad” memory. As of today, Curiosity is out of safe mode, and the team is configuring the rover for new science operations in the clay unit. Curiosity is expected to return to science operations as early as Wednesday.

This news is worrisome. The track record for spacecraft with increasing computer problems is that they never get better. Instead, the problem steadily worsens until operations become limited or even impossible. In the meantime engineers work wonders to extend the mission, but in the end this is a battle they appear to always lose.

We are beginning to see this pattern with Curiosity. Both of its computers have now experienced problems. It appears they have a better handle on the problems with the back-up computer (Side-B), so that is why they have switched back to it. Should its own memory issues continue to deteriorate however the rover will be in serious trouble, as the Side-A computer has proven to be very unreliable.

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New analysis supports catastrophic floods and intermittent ocean on Mars

The intermittent ocean at the outlet to Marineris Valles

A new analysis of Martian data once again suggests that an intermittent ocean once existed in the planet’s northern hemisphere, and that it was fed by catastrophic floods coming down from the volcanoes through Marineris Valles.

“Our simulation shows that the presence of the sea would have attenuated cataclysmic floods, leading to shallow spillovers that reached the Pathfinder landing site and produced the bedforms detected by the spacecraft,” said [lead scientist Alexis Rodriguez].

The team’s results indicate that marine spillover deposits contributed to the landscape that the spacecraft detected nearly 22 years ago, and reconcile the mission’s in situ geologic observations and decades of remote-sensing outflow channel investigations.

The sea bears an uncanny resemblance to the Aral Sea on Earth in that in both instances they lack distinct shoreline terraces. Its rapid regression over shallow submerged slopes resulted in rates of shoreline front retreat too fast for the terraces to form. The same process could partly account for the long-recognized lack of northern plains shorelines.

“Our numerical simulations indicate that the sea rapidly became ice-covered and disappeared within a few thousand years due to its rapid evaporation and sublimation. During this time, however, it remained liquid below its ice cover,” said PSI Senior Scientist Bryan Travis, a co-author in the paper.

The map above shows the outlet region to the west and north of Marineris Valles. (The paper from which it is adapted is available on line here.) It shows that inland sea, created by the catastrophic floods. Because it sits at a lower elevation than the plains to the north, the floods that entered it ponded there, where they dried up. Only when the floods were at their highest did the water spill out into the northern plains.

In reading the paper, it confirms many of the suppositions I myself have made in my frequent posts analyzing numerous Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) images, such as the lack of a clear shoreline because the ocean was short-lived. As it dried up its edge left patches of shoreline, at different elevations and in pondlike patterns, almost like the beach debris left behind by the tide.

The paper also shows that some of my guesses were not quite correct. For example, this new analysis says that the catastrophic floods only partly carved out the chaos terrain of Hydraotes Chaos, rather than do it all as I supposed here. Instead, the floods contributed, but much of the erosion occurred when the short-lived inland sea existed here, eroding away at the mesas from all sides.

Read it all. Though this remains a simulation based on what is presently very incomplete data and thus has many uncertainties, it will give you a much deeper understanding of what we presently theorize about the past geological history of Mars.

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Russia successfully launches manned Soyuz to ISS

Update: The Soyuz rocket has successfully placed the manned Soyuz capsule into orbit.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

3 SpaceX
3 China
2 Europe (Arianespace)
2 Russia

The U.S. still leads China 4 to 3 in the national rankings.

Initial post: The Russians are right now counting down to a 3:14 pm (eastern) manned Soyuz launch to ISS.

A live video stream of the launch is available at the link from both NASA and the Russians. I have embedded the Russian stream below the fold. It has little narration, and so avoids the annoying propaganda stuff that the NASA feed is littered with.

This manned launch is a bit more interesting in that it is attempting to put in space the three astronauts who were on the aborted October launch. This is also only the second manned Soyuz launch since that abort, so there remains a bit of nervousness about it.
» Read more

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A gathering of dust devils

Dust devil tracks
Click for full resolution image.

A bunch of cool images! The European Space Agency (ESA) today released more than a dozen Martian images taken by the camera on its Trace Gas Orbiter spacecraft.

In addition to a snapshot of InSight and its landing area, “The images selected include detailed views of layered deposits in the polar regions, the dynamic nature of Mars dunes, and the surface effects of converging dust devils.” The release also included images showing details of two of Mars’ giant volcanoes, Olympus Mons and Ascraeus Mons.

The image I have highlighted to the right, reduced to post here, shows a spot on Mars where for some unknown reason dust devils love to congregate.

This mysterious pattern sits on the crest of a ridge, and is thought to be the result of dust devil activity – essentially the convergence of hundreds or maybe even thousands of smaller martian tornadoes.

Below is a side-by-side comparison of this image (on the right) with a Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) image taken in 2009 (on the left).
» Read more

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World View crashes?

Capitalism in space: The hi-tech high-altitude balloon company World View has failed to meet its commitments in its local development deal and has changed leadership.

Pima County’s supervisors approved a ballsy deal with World View amid fanfare, criticism and a ginned-up lawsuit the county won. The county would build World View a headquarters and a launch pad for the balloons. The company would pay rent on the facilities and repay the county for its end, plus a guarantee of escalating its local workforce to 100 by the end of 2018, 200 by 2022 and 400 by 2032.

Three years on, there’s been a catastrophic explosion and a leadership change as World View’s promise of “Jobs!” Jobs! Jobs!” has turned into “eh … jobs …” The company has a staff of 87. That’s 13 fewer than what was promised in the contract. Because World View refused to make public its internal growth projections, the county approved the deal after its own study predicted the company would hire pushing 400 workers by now.

The company had started out casting itself as a tourist operation, offering people multi-hour high-altitude flights for far less than the suborbital rocket companies. In 2017 the company quietly shifted its marketing, touting its balloon technology instead as a way to do high altitude research and reconnaissance. Soon thereafter they had an explosion during a test flight.

Since then they have apparently done little. With the recent corporate restructuring I wonder at the company’s future.

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Aldrin family ends legal battle

Buzz Aldrin and his family have decided to end their legal fight over the assets of the former Apollo astronaut.

Seeking to restore family harmony months before 50th anniversary celebrations of the first human moon landing, Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin has dropped a lawsuit that accused two of his children and the family foundation of abusing his finances and trust.

His children, Andy and Jan, also have dismissed an effort to win legal guardianship of their father, an 89-year-old Satellite Beach resident whom they claimed suffers from dementia.

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NASA considering replacing SLS with commercial rockets for first Orion test mission

Capitalism in space: Faced with endless delays that will likely prevent the first scheduled launch of SLS in June 2020, NASA is now considering using commercially purchased rockets to send the Orion capsule and European service module on that same mission.

NASA now believes the Space Launch System will not be ready for the EM-1 test flight by June 2020, the program’s most recent target launch date. Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator, said Wednesday the space agency is weighing alternatives to keep the Orion spacecraft on track for a lunar mission in 2020 to test the capsule’s European-built power and propulsion module, and assess the performance of the crew capsule’s heat shield during blistering re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere from the moon.

“Some of those options would include launching the Orion crew capsule and the European service module on a commercial rocket,” Bridenstine said in a hearing with the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

Bridenstine said it is important for NASA to stick to its commitment to launch EM-1 by June 2020, and his announcement Wednesday marked the first time a NASA leader has publicly discussed launching the Orion spacecraft’s first lunar mission on a commercial rocket, and not the more expensive government-run Space Launch System. “Certainly, there are opportunities to utilize commercial capabilities to put the Orion crew capsule and the European service module in orbit around the moon by June of 2020, which was our originally-stated objective, and I’ve tasked the agency to look into how we might accomplish that objective,” Bridenstine said.

Because Orion and its service module are so heavy they cannot be launched by a single Falcon Heavy rocket. However, that rocket could easily put everything in orbit in two launches, where the two parts could dock together.

There is still a problem with this plan, according to Bridenstine:

“I want to be clear. We do not have, right now, an ability to dock the Orion crew capsule with anything in orbit. So between now and June of 2020, we would have to make that a reality.”

I find this fact incredible. NASA built Orion without the capability to maneuver and dock with other spacecraft? If this is true, it shows once again the outright incompetence of anything our federal government does, including NASA.

Regardless, Bridenstine’s announcement is very good news. If Orion is launched on that 2020 first test mission using commercial rockets, it will demonstrate clearly the uselessness of the expensive and very delayed SLS. It will also make it politically easier to consider shutting it down, before it eats up more funds.

More important, this statement by Bridenstine indicates that there are many people in the Trump administration that have come to this same conclusion. This statement also means that they are beginning to make the political moves necessary to make the cancellation of SLS possible.

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Toyota and JAXA to work together to build lunar rover

Capitalism in space? Toyota and and Japan’s space agency JAXA announced yesterday that they have signed an agreement to build lunar rover.

The rover “will be an important element supporting human lunar exploration, which we envision will take place in the 2030s”, JAXA Vice President Koichi Wakata told a symposium in Tokyo. “We aim to launch such a rover into space in 2029.”

The rover is still in the conceptual stage, but an illustration in the news release showed a six-wheel vehicle that somewhat resembled an armored personnel carrier.

A spokesman for Toyota, which plans to ramp up fuel-cell cars as a zero-emission alternative to gasoline vehicles, said the project would give the company a chance to test its technologies in the moon’s harsh environment and improve them. [emphasis mine]

Ten years to build a rover? That’s not capitalism, that’s a government jobs program whose only goal is to spend money and never accomplishes anything.

Japan continues to disappoint. Even as India and China forge ahead aggressively with new space technology and exciting projects, Japan seems unable to harness its considerable private resources to bring life to its aerospace industry. Their unmanned planetary program, as illustrated by Hayabusa-2, is right now having some success, but the pace of achievement has tended to be slow and laborious. This rover project seems to continue that trend.

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Opportunity’s parting shot

Opportunity's last panorama
Click for full image.

The Opportunity science team today released the last full 360 degree panorama taken by the rover last spring, prior to the global dust storm that ended its fifteen year mission on Mars.

Over 29 days last spring, NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity documented this 360-degree panorama from multiple images taken at what would become its final resting spot in Perseverance Valley. Located on the inner slope of the western rim of Endurance Crater, Perseverance Valley is a system of shallow troughs descending eastward about the length of two football fields from the crest of Endeavor’s rim to its floor.

“This final panorama embodies what made our Opportunity rover such a remarkable mission of exploration and discovery,” said Opportunity project manager John Callas of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “To the right of center you can see the rim of Endeavor Crater rising in the distance. Just to the left of that, rover tracks begin their descent from over the horizon and weave their way down to geologic features that our scientists wanted to examine up close. And to the far right and left are the bottom of Perseverance Valley and the floor of Endeavour crater, pristine and unexplored, waiting for visits from future explorers.”

If you click on the image above you can go to the full image and zoom and scan across it.

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SpaceX about to install engines on Starship hopper

Capitalism in space: Late last week SpaceX officials revealed that they are about to install the first two Raptor engines on their Starship hopper prototype being assembled at the Texas spaceport.

According to an official SpaceX statement, once Raptor is installed on Starhopper, the integrated vehicle will perform a combination of ground systems testing, propellant loading, static fire tests, and low-altitude hover demonstrations to prove out the brand new vehicle, engine, and facilities. Prior to the final months of 2018, the build site, launch pad, and prototype Starship now preparing for imminent hop tests were little more than empty dirt lots on the southern tip of the Texas coast.

…“SpaceX will conduct checkouts of the newly installed ground systems and perform a short static fire test in the days ahead,” he said. “Although the prototype is designed to perform sub-orbital flights, or hops, powered by the SpaceX Raptor engine, the vehicle will be tethered during initial testing and hops will not be visible from offsite. SpaceX will establish a safety zone perimeter in coordination with local enforcement and signage will be in place to alert the community prior to the testing.” – James Gleeson, March 8th, SpaceX

It is not clear when these first hopper tests will occur, but based on the pace that SpaceX is setting, it should not be too far into the future. Before that however they will likely need to first do some static fire tests, on the ground.

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Martian massive landslides

Though scientists have found some evidence of slow erosion and change on the Martian surface, it is today generally inactive. While the weak wind of Mars’ thin atmosphere continues to work its will, and the likely presence of underground frozen water acts to shift the surface shape as the seasons come and go, none of this happens quickly.

Essentially, Mars is a quiet place.

Once however catastrophic events took place, gigantic floods flowing down to the east from the planet’s huge volcanoes to carve out Marineris Valles, the solar system’s largest known canyon. As that water rushed eastward it ripped the terrain apart quickly, creating deep side canyons, drainage valleys, and chopped up regions now dubbed as chaos terrain, multiple mesas separated by numerous fissure-like canyons.

Overview of Marineris Valles and landslide

The overview map on the right shows Valles Marineris and its drainage to the east and north into the vast northern plains of Mars. It also shows the location of one of the largest regions on Mars of chaos terrain, dubbed Hydraotes Chaos, located close to the mouth of this gigantic drainage system more than 2,500 miles long.

Massive Martian landslide
Click for full image.

Recently scientists have used the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) to begin taking images of the massive landslides on the face of the mesa north of Hydraotes Chaos that was hit directly by these floods. The location of the most immediately interesting of these landslide images is also indicated on this overview image.

To the right is that image, rotated, cropped, reduced, and annotated to post here. The white boxes indicate two full resolution sections that I highlight below at full resolution.

This image shows that full cliff. The total drop from the plateau at the top to the floor where Hydraotes Chaos is located to the south is approximately 8,200 feet, almost exactly comparable to the depth of the north rim of the Grand Canyon.

The image shows numerous evidence of avalanches and erosion, both at its base and at its rim. None of these avalanches likely occurred during those catastrophic floods, but long afterward.
» Read more

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