Space Sunday: of rockets, rovers and impacts

Blue Origin's New Shephard lifts-off on Saturday, April 2nd on a successful sub-orbital test flight which saw both capsule and propulsion module successfully recovered

Blue Origin’s New Shephard lifts-off on Saturday, April 2nd on a successful sub-orbital test flight which saw both capsule and propulsion module successfully recovered

Blue Origin, established by  Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, scored a three-for-three with launches and landings of their sub-orbital New Shephard launch vehicle.

Intended to offer passengers the opportunity to experience the microgravity of space, New Shephard is a two stage vehicle comprising the capsule unit which will eventually carry  6 people to the each of space, and a rocket stage simply called the “propulsion module”. Both are designed to be fully re-usable in order to reduce the overall cost of launch operations.

The Blue Origin propulsion module just a couple of seconds from touch down on April 2nd, 2016 (image: Blue Origins)

The Blue Origin propulsion module just a couple of seconds from touch down on April 2nd, 2016 (image: Blue Origins)

Having first flown on November 23rd, 2015, when the capsule unit reached an altitude of 100.5 km (63 mi) before parachuting back to a soft landing and the propulsion module made a powered descent and landing, the April 2nd, 2016, marked the third successful flight for both capsule and propulsion module, the latter now having been used for all three successful flights in November 2015, January 2016 and April 2016.

During the flight, the capsule – which was carrying a small science payload – reached a maximum altitude of 103.4 km (64.4 mi) before making a return to Earth under its parachutes, while the propulsion module steered its way back to the launch site to make a powered landing.

Nor was this a run-of-the-mill return for the propulsion module, as a the ascent / descent engine was re-lit at a much higher altitude that is expected during operational flights, at around 1,107 metres (3,600 ft), in a manoeuvre designed to further test the engine’s reliability and the wear and tear it might suffer during a flight. Understanding both of these factors will help Blue Origin better identify the overall costs involved in refurbishing rocket and engines between flights.

The New Shephard capsule, whilst primarily intended to fly people on sub-orbital flights, can also be used for science research, as demonstrated in this flight, which saw the capsule carry the Box of Rocks experiment from the Southwest Research Institute, designed to explore how rocky debris settles in microgravity, and the University of Central Florida’s Collisions into Dust experiment, which aims to better understand how large bodies interacted with dust in the early Solar System.

The New Shephard capsule being recovered following its parachute landing (image: Blue Origin)

The New Shephard capsule being recovered following its parachute landing (image: Blue Origin)

While Blue Origin appear to be slightly ahead of SpaceX in terms of launching and recovering their rockets, it’s important to remember that the current New Shephard vehicle and the SpaceX Falcon 1.1 are very different beasts. Not only is the latter some 3 times bigger than New Shepard, the first stage of the vehicle flies much higher and faster than the Blue Origin vehicle, both of which make returning the first stage of the booster to a landing site to make a safe touchdown far more of a technical challenge.

That said, the sub-orbital capabilities of New Shephard are only one phase of Blue Origin’s plans. With the vehicle expected to commence crewed test flights in 2017 and offer sub-orbital tourist flights from 2018, the company plan to gradually uprate the vehicle to a point were it will also be able to undertake orbital launches and still be recovered.

Walking with Rovers

NASA is continuing to ramp public interest in Mars, with a new public outreach programme set to begin in summer 2016.

Destination: Mars builds on the ongoing cooperative work between the space agency and Microsoft in developing applications and opportunities for the Miscrosoft HoloLens system. As I’ve previously reported, NASA is already using the HoloLen aboard the International Space Station, and have also developed a means for members of the Curiosity science team put themselves “on” Mars using the HoloLens and data / images returned by the rover.

It is in the latter capacity that Destination: Mars is designed to work, offering the public, using the mixed reality capabilities of the HoloLens to “visit” Mars.

Apollo 11 Lunar Module Pilot and second man on the Moon, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, acts as a virtual host for Destination: Mars

Apollo 11 Lunar Module Pilot and second man on the Moon, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, acts as a virtual host for Destination: Mars

The exhibit will operate at the Kennedy Space Centre Visitor Complex in Florida, and visitors will be able spend time at several sites visited by Curiosity during the course of its travels across Gale Crater. Their host for their visits will be Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, the second man to walk on the Moon and himself a strong advocate for human missions to Mars. He is joined by Curiosity rover driver Erisa Hines, who leads participants to places on Mars where scientists have made exciting discoveries and explaining what we have learned about the planet.

Destination: Mars, developed from the OnSight science capabilities used by the Curiosity science team, together with the use of the HoloLens for practical activities aboard the ISS, demonstrates the potential for mixed reality to have practical and educational shareable experiences which could make the technology more popular than enclosed VR toolsets.

Dust Devils and Slopes

While everyone remains enamoured with Curiosity, NASA’s longest-running rover on Mars, the comparatively small, solar-powered Opportunity (coming up on 4,500 days of  operation), is still exploring Endeavour Crater, half a world away from Curiosity.

On April 1st, and to compensate for a recent setback, Opportunity happened to catch sight of a Martian dust devil – a mini tornado like feature – scooting across the steep walled terrain inside Marathon Valley which overlooks the floor of the crater.

A mosaic of images by Opportunity showing a Martian dust devil (upper centre of the picture), skipping over the terrain behind the rover as it climbs Knudsen Ridge inside Marathon Valley on April 1st, 2016 (credit: NASA/JPL / Cornell / Ken Kremer kenkremer.com / Marco Di Lorenzo)

A mosaic of images by Opportunity showing a Martian dust devil (upper centre of the picture), skipping over the terrain behind the rover as it drives through Marathon Valley on April 1st, 2016 (credit: NASA/JPL / Cornell / Ken Kremer / Marco Di Lorenzo)

This is not the first time dust devils have been imaged on Mars – either from the surface or from orbit – but it is one of the most captivating images produced of a natural phenomenon which is, in part, for Opportunity’s longevity.

When the MER rovers were designed, it was widely anticipated that dust suspended in the Martian atmosphere would slowly coat the solar cells they rovers use to collect sunlight to recharge their batteries, gradually reducing their ability to provide power to the rovers. This is what initially happened to both Opportunity and it’s now defunct sister rover, Spirit.

But as the mission progressed, engineers were surprised see that, periodically, the generating capabilities of the solar arrays would get a boost, almost restoring them to their full potential, before their generating capabilities would again decline. Self-portraits taken by the rovers of their solar panels revealed they were periodically being “scrubbed” clean of dust – and the bodies responsible for this were eventually identified as dust devils randomly passing over the rovers.

Opportunity has been attempting to climb Knudsen Ridge inside Marathon Valley (credit: NASA/JPL / Cornell / Marco Di Lorenzo / Ken Kremer)

Opportunity has been attempting to climb “Knudsen Ridge” inside Marathon Valley (credit: NASA/JPL / Cornell / Marco Di Lorenzo / Ken Kremer)

The April 2016 dust devil sighting came just after the Opportunity team had to admit defeat in a further attempt the get the rover to climb the slopes of “Knudsen Ridge” in Marathon Valley, as it continues its search for signs of ancient water on Mars. The rover has been exploring the ridge and trying to climb it since January 2016.

The ridge is of interest to scientists because the upper reaches contain smectite (phyllosilicate) clay rocks which may reveal further clues to Mars watery past. In particular, analysis of the rocks from orbit show they have deep absorptions associated with iron and magnesium smectite, which tends to form  under water wet, non-acidic conditions that are more conducive to the formation of life.

Two self portraits by Opportunity's twin on Mars, Spirit. On the left, how the rover's solar panels had accumulated dust by October 2007. On the right, how the solar arrays looked in November 2008, after a "spring clean" by dust devils the rover encountered during the Martian "spring"

Two self portraits by Opportunity’s twin on Mars, Spirit. On the left, how the rover’s solar panels had accumulated dust by October 2007. On the right, how the solar arrays looked in November 2008, after a “spring clean” by dust devils the rover encountered during the Martian “spring”

However, reaching the top of the ridge has involved Opportunity trying to climb the steepest slopes ever attempted by a rover on Mars, tilted by as much as much as 32 degrees. The climb involved the rover having to deal with greater and greater amounts of wheel slippage on the slope, prompting the team to pull it back from its target area once, before trying a second attempt to reach the top of the ridge was made in March.

This time, as the rover drew close to the target area, orders were sent to increase the number of wheel rotations to try to overcome any slippage – so many, in fact, that under normal conditions, they would have carried the rover about 20 metres (66 ft). however, data received from the rover after the attempt have been made showed Opportunity had travelled just 9 centimetres (3.5 inches) closer to the target area.

Rather than risk burning out the rovers motors, the engineering and science teams decided to back Opportunity down the slope and seek and alternative target, allowing it to witness the passing dust devil.

On Frozen Pond

NASA’ New Horizons flyby mission through the Pluto-Charon system has revealed a further mystery for scientists to ponder: evidence that liquid once flowed on the surface of Pluto.

The lake of frown nitrogen on Pluto, images by the New Horizons mission during its closest approach to Pluto on July 14th, 2015. The lake is approximately 30 km (18.75 mi) in length

The lake of frown nitrogen on Pluto, images by the New Horizons mission during its closest approach to Pluto on July 14th, 2015. The lake is approximately 30 km (18.75 mi) in length (image: NASA/JPL / JHU/APL / SwRi)

The evidence comes from a series of images taken by the space vehicle of the rugged terrain north of “Sputnik Planum”, the huge expanse of nitrogen ice forming one lobe of Pluto’s enigmatic “heart” feature. Amidst all the images of the chaotic terrain, one in particular caught the science team’s eyes, as it reveals an area which looks like  a frozen lake. Further images revealed water look like channels cut into the planet’s surface by flowing liquid.

The lake and channels are most likely the result of free-flowing liquid nitrogen on Pluto. However, is this is the case, it would mean that Pluto’s atmosphere was once far more dense and warm than is the case today, and possessed of a greater atmospheric pressure.

If so, this further points to Pluto having once been a very active little world, far more active than should really be the case for such a small body so far from ant source of heat and light. and that has scientists once again scratching their heads.

Jupiter Gets Thumped. Again

Jupiter is the largest planet in the solar system. It comes with a massive gravity well which, together with its relative proximity to the inner rocky planets of the solar system, has earned it the nick-name of the solar system’s vacuum cleaner. This is because its size and massive gravity well tend to naturally attract asteroid and comets (or fragments thereof), “hoovering” them up because they can stray onwards into the solar system and potentially offer the threat of collision with one of the inner planets.

A Hubble Space Telescope image of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, taken on May 17th, 1994, showing the train of fragments stretched across 1.1 million km (710,000 mi) of space, or 3 times the distance between Earth and the Moon

A Hubble Space Telescope image of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, taken on May 17th, 1994, showing the train of fragments stretched across 1.1 million km (710,000 mi) of space, or 3 times the distance between Earth and the Moon (credit: NASA, ESA, and H. Weaver and E. Smith (STScI) )

We had a grandstand set of how Jupiter works in this way between 1992 and 1994. It was in 1992 that comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, a short-period comet which had been captured by Jupiter’s immense gravity in the 1970s and forced to orbit the massive planet, passed well within Jupiter’s Roche Limit. This is the point at which the tidal forces are strong enough to pull apart a smaller body held together by its own gravity – and that’s exactly what happened to Shoemaker-Levy 9, turning it from a single comet into a string of 21 fragments which “shotgunned” into Jupiter in 1994, with the world watching through the eye of the Hubble Space Telescope.

An image of Jupiter's southern hemisphere by the Hubble Space Telescope show the aftermath of fragments from comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 struck the planet's atmosphere in July 1994 (credit: (credit: NASA, ESA, STScI)

An image of Jupiter’s southern hemisphere by the Hubble Space Telescope show the aftermath of fragments from comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 struck the planet’s atmosphere in July 1994 (credit: (credit: NASA, ESA, STScI)

Since 1994, technology has improved such that amateur astronomers have the ability to observer and record Jupiter using video systems hooked up to their telescopes, and watching the gigantic planet for signs of impacts or to observe its shifting bands of weather is a popular undertaking. So much so that many amateur astronomers have recorded impacts or the results of impacts of objects striking the outer layers of Jupiter’s atmosphere.

On March 17th, 2016, Gerrit Kernbauer of Mödling, Austria, was one such amateur astronomer filming Jupiter through his 200mm ( 7.8-inch ) telescope. However, conditions were far from ideal, and he was hesitant to review the recording he’d made. But when he did, 10 days later, he was surprised to find he’s recorded what seems to be the moment of impact between a small celestial object and Jupiter.

Posting his video footage, Kernbauer  quickly gained confirmation that he had witnessed an event at Jupiter. John McKeon from near Dublin, was another astronomer who released video footage shot on his 280mm (11-inch) telescope showing the same impact. Others followed.

It’s not clear how being the object causing the impact plume was; such is Jupiter’s gravity that even small objects can create a seemingly large impacts, the result of acceleration as they “fall” in towards Jupiter. But knowing the size of the object isn’t important; it’s the fact that such collisions do occur, perhaps as frequently as one every 5 or 6 years, which reminds us that the solar system really is a very active place.

Note the “shimmering” in the video is an optical effect created by Earth’s atmosphere.

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