Space Sunday: conjunctions, volcanoes and space stations

Solar conjunction: when Earth (r) is on the opposite side of the Sun or another solar system body - in this case, Mars (l)

Solar conjunction: when Earth (r) is on the opposite side of the Sun or another solar system body – in this case, Mars (l)

Solar Conjunction

June sees Mars an Earth move into a period of solar conjunction, when they are one opposite sides of the Sun relative to one another. These periods of conjunction occur roughly every 26 months (the last having been April 2013), can see communications between Earth and vehicles operating on and around Mars severely disrupted due to interference from the Sun.

To prevent spacecraft at Mars from receiving garbled commands that could be misinterpreted or even harmful, the operators of Mars orbiters and rovers temporarily stop sending any commands. At the same time, communications from the craft to Earth are also stepped down, and science operations scaled back. Nasa started to do this on Sunday, June 7th, and both ESA and the Indian Space Research Organisation will be doing the same. For the two Mars rovers, Opportunity and Curiosity, it means parking up and no driving until after full communications are restored. General science observation will, however, continue.

One slight difference in all this will be with NASA’s newest orbiter at Mars: MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution). This arrived over Mars in September 2014,  with the primary mission of determining the history of the loss of atmospheric gases to space and gain insight into Martian climate evolution. As such, MAVEN will continue monitoring the solar wind reaching Mars and making other measurements. The reading will be stored within the orbiter’s memory system and transmitted back to Earth once normal communications have been restored.

MOM Studies Mars’ Volcanoes

Mars: The north polar ice cap, the three massive craters of the Tharsis volcanoes forming a diagonal line in the centre, the mighty "boil" of Olympus mons to their left and the 5,000 km long Vallis Marineris to their right

Mars: The north polar ice cap, the three massive craters of the Tharsis volcanoes forming a near-vertical line in the centre, the mighty “boil” of Olympus Mons to their left and the 5,000 km long Vallis Marineris to their right (image courtesy of ISRO)

Another mission that hasn’t gained much attention since also arriving in orbit around Mars is India’s Mangalyaan (“Mars-craft”) vehicle, which reached Mars on September 24th, 2014. Referred to simply as the Mars Oribiter Mission (MOM) by most, the vehicle reached Mars just 2 days after NASA’s MAVEN orbiter, and like that craft, a part of its mission is focused on studying the Martian atmosphere.

MOM also carries a high-resolution surface imaging camera, and this has been busy returning some magnificent picture of Mars, including the brilliant picture of the planet reproduced above, which shows the north polar ice cap, the almost vertical line of the three massive Tharsis Bulge volcanoes of Ascraeus Mons, Pavonis Mons and Arsia Mons in the centre, the massive rise of Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in the solar system to their left, and the 5,000 kilometre scar of the massive Vallis Marineris to their right.

MOM’s camera is also capable of producing 3D images, and an example of this capability was released by ISRO on June 5th in the form of a dazzling image of Arsia Mons, the southernmost of the equator spanning Tharsis volcanoes. The image was actually captured on April 1st, 2015, and has a spatial resolution of 556 metres, and the camera some 10,707 kilometres from the surface of Mars when the picture was taken.

The mighty Arsia Mons on Mars, largest of the three Tharsis Bulge volcanoes. The image shows a deliberate vertical exaggeration to the volcano's slope

The mighty Arsia Mons on Mars, largest of the three Tharsis Bulge volcanoes. The image shows a deliberate vertical exaggeration to the volcano’s slope (image courtesy of ISRO)

To give some idea of the scale of this massive shield volcano, it is 435 kilometres (270 mi) in diameter at its base, rises some 20 kilometres (12 miles) in height compared to the mean surface elevation of the planet, and is some 9 kilometres (5.6 miles) higher than the plains on which it sits. The caldera crater at its summit is 110 km (72 miles) across.

UAE To Mars?

The United Arab Emirates  has unveiled ambitious aims to develop its own leading-edge space sciences and space technology programme. Central to this is a desire to launch an orbital mission to Mars in 2020 /21 – which itself is a massively ambitious aim, considering that just 10 months ago, the UAE didn’t even have a space agency.

The mission, called Hope, is being directed towards producing the first-ever truly global picture of the Martian atmosphere, collecting over 1,000 gigabytes of new Mars data, which will be returned to Earth for study. The mission will be developed, financed and run entirely out of the UAE, and is being seen as not just a statement of national intent for the country, but also as a rallying call for young Arab men and women to engage in the sciences.

“We decided to name the probe ‘Hope’ as it sends a message of optimism to millions of young Arabs,”  Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of the emirate of Dubai said. “Arab civilisation once played a great role in contributing to human knowledge, and will play that role again.”

 LightSail Goes Silent Again

The Planetary Society’s LightSail mission continues to suffer ups-and-downs.

Launched at the end of May, the tiny, publicly-funded satellite, just 30 centimetres (12 inches) long and 10 centimetres on a side, it is hoped that LightSail-1 will test the mechanism for deploying a set of four Mylar solar sails, which once unfurled, will cover an area of some 32 square metres (344 square feet). If successful, a follow-up mission in 2016 will use a similar mechanism to deploy a sail it will use to “sail” the flow of charges particles that are constantly streaming outwards from the Sun, as a proof of concept for the idea of solar sailing.

An artist's impression of a Lightsail CubeSat with its sail fully deployed

An artist’s impression of a Lightsail CubeSat with its sail fully deployed

Not long after launch on May 20th, a software glitch prevented communications with mission control for a period of several days. However, as I reported last time, LightSail-1 suddenly resumed contact, allowing controllers to upload a software patch to prevent the original problem from recurring. Unfortunately, LightSail-1 again fell silent silent on Wednesday, June 3rd, just after the main solar panels (which also protected the furled elements of the solar sail) had been deployed.

It is currently hoped that the satellite is operating in a “safe” mode as a result of running on batteries for so long, and is using the solar panels to recharge the little battery system onboard. Should this be the case, the satellite should reset itself and resume normal communications with Earth once more, in which case the unfurling of the sail can go ahead. Once this has occurred, LightSail-1’s obit will degrade over about a 2-day period during atmospheric drag; there will be no actual solar sailing in this mission.

USA, Canada and Russia Commit to ISS through to 2024

Canada has become the latest partner in the International Space Space to commit funding to keep the station operational through until late 2024, four years beyond the last extension to the station’s mission. Both the United states and Russia committed to the station’s continuation earlier in 2015.

In return for their continued participation in the project, the Canadians have secured two further crew slots aboard the ISS, one of which is expected to be taken in 2019, and the other most likely in 2024, each for a 6-month mission duration.

The ISS: support from the USA, Russia and Canada for operations to continue through until 2024

The ISS: support from the USA, Russia and Canada for operations to continue through until 2024 (image: NASA)

The last Canadian to fly aboard the space station was Chris Hadfield, who commanded the ISS during his rotation during the 2012 / 2013 Expedition 35 crew, and gained worldwide popularity for his social media activities and singing from space.

Canada pays 2.3% of the operating costs of the “co-operative” parts of the ISS (i.e. the non-Russian built modules and elements, which are paid for solely by Russia), with America covering 76.2%. The remaining 21.1% is paid for by Japan (12.8%) and Europe (8.3%), neither of which have as yet committed to supporting the ISS beyond 2020.

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