Space Sunday: from Earth orbit to Pluto, via Mars

The "supermoon" of November 14th rises over the MS-03 spacecraft the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, where it was being prepared for launch to the International Space Station
The “supermoon” of November 14th rises over the Soyuz MS-03 spacecraft the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, where it was being prepared for launch to the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

The second of the three so-called “supermoons” which see out 2016 produced some dramatic photographs and video from around the world. Perhaps one of the most stunning  came from cameras at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, monitoring Soyuz MS-03 as it stood on the pad at Launch Complex 1.

As I noted in my last Space Sunday Report, a “supermoon” occurs when the Moon is both full and at perigee – the point in its orbit when it is closest to the Earth as it travels around our planet in an elliptical orbit. Such events occur around every 14 months, and can see the Moon appear to be 14% bigger than its average size in our sky, particularly when seen low on the horizon.

The “supermoon” of November 14th was special because the Moon was about at its closest point to Earth in its orbit – “just” 356,509 kilometres (221,524 miles) from us and the Earth / Moon system is approaching the time of year when it is closest to the Sun (which will occur on January 4th, 2017), thus making the full Moon “extra” bright for those who were able to see it. The next time this will occur will be in 2034. However, December 14th will see another “supermoon”, albeit one at a slightly greater distance away from the Earth, so those who missed November’s – weather permitting – may still get to see one before the year is out. In the meantime, here’s NASA’s footage from Baikonaur  – the film obviously speeded-up 🙂 .

Soyuz MS-03 lifted-off from Baikonur on Friday, November 18th, carrying aloft Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy, American astronaut  Peggy Whitson and rookie French astronaut Thomas Pesquet. It successfully docked with the International Space Station on Saturday, November 19th, marking the start of the Expedition 50/51 mission aboard the station, the crew sharing space with the Expedition 49/50 crew of mission commander Shane Kimbrough of NASA and Russian cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Andrei Borisenko, who have been aboard the station since October and who are due to return to Earth in February 2017.

For Whitson, this is a double first: she is the oldest woman to ever fly to the ISS – she will celebrate her 57th birthday in orbit – and, come February, she will be the first woman to command the space station for a second time in its 16-year operational history, having already become the very first woman to take command during Expedition 16 in 2007. She is also NASA’s most experienced female astronaut, with nearly 377 days logged in space, including six space walks totalling 39 hours 46 minutes. By the time she returns to Earth, she will have spent more time in space than any other US astronaut, surpassing the 534-day record set by Jeff Williams in September 2016.

Peggy Witson with Oleg Novitsky and Thomas Pesquet posing for photographs prior to launch. Via: Peggy Whitson
Peggy Witson with Oleg Novitskiy and Thomas Pesquet posing for photographs prior to launch. Via: Peggy Whitson

During their time aboard the station, Whitson, Novitskiy and Pesquest will conduct hundreds of experiments and studies in biology, biotechnology, physical science and Earth science. A particular focus will be recording how lighting impacts the overall health and well-being of station crew members, and how the microgravity environment in orbit affects tissue regeneration in humans and the genetic properties of space-grown plants.

The crew carry with them some special meal time treats as well. Taking a leaf from British astronaut Tim Peake’s book, Pesquest requested fellow countrymen and renowned chefs Alain Ducasse and Thierry Marx develop a special menu for the crew. Highlights include beef tongue with truffled foie gras and duck breast confit.

Soyuz MS-03, piloted by Oleg Novitsky, closes for a docking with the Russian-built Rassvet module on Saturday, November 19th. In the foreground is the Cygnus resupply vehicle which recently arrived at the space station, together with one of its circular solar power arrays
Soyuz MS-03, piloted by commander Oleg Novitskiy, closes for a docking with the Russian-built Rassvet module on Saturday, November 19th. In the foreground is the Cygnus resupply vehicle which recently arrived at the space station, one of its circular solar power arrays partially blocking the view of the incoming Soyuz. Credit: NASA

“We have food for the big feasts: for Christmas, New Year’s and birthdays. We’ll have two birthdays, mine and Peggy’s,” the Frenchman said at the astronauts’ last press conference before the launch.

Pesquest,  a former commercial airline pilot with Air France, is also set to offer some entertainment for the crew: a keen musician, he’s taken his saxophone to the ISS. As part of his work on the station, he has special responsibility for the Proxima research programme of 50 experiments developed by the European Space Agency and the French national space agency, CNES. The programme’s name was suggested by 13-year old Samuel Planas from Toulouse, France, following a nationwide competition among school children. It is taken from Proxima Centauri, with the X in the name both representing the unknown, and the fact that Pesquest is the tenth French astronaut to fly in space.

Oleg Novitskiy, a 45-year-old lieutenant colonel in the Russian Air Force, is also on his second mission aboard the ISS, having previously served as the Soyuz TMA-06M commander during the flight to the ISS, and as the station’s flight engineer during Expedition 33/34. He has spent 143 days 16 hours and 15 minutes in space.

Curiosity Finds a Meteorite

The dark, smooth-surfaced rock at the center of this Oct. 30, 2016, image from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover was examined with laser pulses and confirmed to be an iron-nickel meteorite. It is about the size of a golf ball. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
“Egg Rock”, a golf ball sized iron-nickel meteorite being studied by NASA’s Curiosity rover as it sits on the surface of Mars. This image was captured by the rover’s Mastcam system on October 30th, 2016, as Curiosity carefully approached the meteorite to commence studies using its ChemCam system. Credit: NASA/JPL / MSSS

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity is continuing to climb and explore the lower slopes of “Mount Sharp” in Gale Crater, investigating how conditions there may have changed over time, and whether they may have once been capable of supporting microbial life. However, most recently it has been studying an iron-nickel meteorite it came across at the end of October.

Iron-nickel meteorites are a common class of space rocks found on Earth, and previous examples have been seen on Mars, but this one, called “Egg Rock”, is the first scientists have been able to analyse directly, thanks to Curiosity’s laser-zapping ChemCam spectrometer instrument.

A magnified image of "Egg Rock" showing the initial size hits by the ChemCam laser (the six white points on the surface of the meteorite)
A magnified image of “Egg Rock” showing the grid of hits by the ChemCam laser during the initial analysis of the rock. Credit: NASA/JPL / MSSS / LPGNantes/CNES/CNRS

Taking a series of shots at the rock,  ChemCam found it contains iron, nickel and phosphorus, plus lesser ingredients.

Egg Rock may have fallen to the surface of Mars millions of years ago, but studying it can provide information about how long exposure to the Martian environment has affected it. Data gathered can be compared with information on similar meteorites found on Earth, allowing scientists better understand environmental changes which have occurred on both planets.

Following the initial set of laser shots, which gathered information on the surface composition of the meteorite, further shots from ChemCam’s laser targeting the same points were used to gather data on the meteorite’s interior. These allow a direct comparison to be made between the chemistry of the rock’s interior and exterior, helping scientists to understand of the Martian environment has affected the latter.

Curiosity has now been operating on Mars for more than twice as long as its originally planned prime mission of about 23 months. Most of the systems aboard the rover remain in good condition, but two of the science instruments – the Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) instrument used to examine the ground over which the rover is passing, and the wind-sensing capability from Curiosity’s Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) – the rover’s “weather station” – are showing signs of decreased capability due to voltage issues. both systems are being analysed to try to determine the reasons for the irregularities to see if full capabilities can be restored.

Chinese Crew Back on Earth

A video still captured by an external camera aboard shenzhou 11 and it moves away from the tiangong-2 orbital laboratory, Friday November 18th
A camera aboard Shenzhou-11’s propulsion module shows the crew-carrying entry module moving slowly away prior to the latter re-entering Earth atmosphere, Friday November 18th. Credit: CCTV

The crew of Shenzhou-11 returned to Earth on Friday, November 18th after completing their 30-day stay aboard the Tiangong-2 (“Heavenly Palace 2”) orbital laboratory.

Mission commander Jing Haipeng, who has now  set the record for the most cumulative time in space by a Chinese citizen (47 days), and Chen Dong returned to Earth under the media spotlight, thanks to a live broadcast via CCTV, the Chinese state television service.

“I feel a bit reluctant to depart but I also feel happy and thrilled,” Chen said from the Tiangong-2 mini-space station in an interview with China’s state-run Xinhua news agency recorded on Tuesday, November 15th. “I feel reluctant because soon we will be leaving Tiangong-2, where we have lived and worked for 30 days. It is like our home in space so I still have a sense of reluctance and attachment.”

The images recorded during the return to Earth featured both exterior and interior shots of  the Shenzhou craft, including the central crew module separating from the propulsion module in preparation for re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. While the crew module used both parachutes and rocket motors to make a “soft” landing in Mongolia, the propulsion and living modules of the vehicle were left to burn-up in Earth’s upper atmosphere.

Jing Haipeng (foreground) and Chen Dong aboard the Shenzhou 11 vehicle prior to re-entry into Earth's atmosphere, Friday, November 18th
Jing Haipeng (foreground) and Chen Dong aboard the Shenzhou 11 vehicle prior to re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, Friday, November 18th

Recovery teams converged on the landing site via helicopter and all-terrain vehicles, and authorities reported the astronauts had already opened Shenzhou-11’s hatch on their own. In a break from practice on previous Shenzhou missions, the live CCTV coverage ended before showing the astronauts getting out of their spacecraft.

Also aboard the capsule were the results of several experiments, including vegetables grown in orbit, various materials, and micro-organism specimens. Scientists on the ground will examine the material and check the lettuce for edibility. The medical investigations during the Shenzhou-11 mission included checks of the crews’ cardiovascular and pulmonary function, bone and muscle mass, and eyesight to see if microgravity caused any degradation in their health.

Other tasks on the month-long flight focused on proving new technologies required by the future Chinese space station, such as robotic systems, a treadmill and bicycle ergometer for exercise, a wide-band communications connection to Earth for live voice and video messages, and upgraded life support equipment.

Prior to departing the laboratory, the crew ensured it was correctly set-up for autonomous operations. The next crew will not be arriving until later in 2017. Before that, a fully automated mission featuring China’s new resupply vehicle, Tianzhou-1, is due to take place in early 2017.

Pluto’s Weather Controls Its Shape and Orientation in Space

"Sputnik Planum" (the left lobe of Pluto's "heart") is believed to be a "positive mass anomaly" which has contributed to the planet's axial tilt, and to the planet's developing weather systems and look, to the point where today, the weather is as much accountable for the planet's looks and position in space and any other factor influencing it. Credit: James Keane
“Sputnik Planum” (the left lobe of Pluto’s “heart”) is believed to be a “positive mass anomaly” which has contributed to the planet’s axial tilt, and to the planet’s developing weather systems and look to the point where today, weather may be as accountable for the planet’s looks and orientation in space as any other factor influencing it. Credit: NASA/JPL / SwRI / JHU/APL

In October, I wrote about further studies into Pluto’s massive frozen “heart”, the “Sputnik Planum”, one of which suggested that the basin has what’s called a positive mass anomaly. In essence, “Sputnik Planum” was created by an impact on Pluto’s surface, the crater quickly filled by water ice welling up from the planet’s interior. More mass was added by the accretion of nitrogen ice from the atmosphere under the region gained so much mass, it gradually came under the gravitational influence of Pluto’s comparatively massive moon, Charon, which “dragged” it into alignment with the tidal axis between both worlds, effective “tipping” Pluto onto is side.

However, rather than seeing this as a process which took place in the past, University of Arizona doctoral student James Keane and his adviser, assistant professor Isamu Matsuyama suggest the process is continuing today, and that Pluto’s weather systems are now the dominant force in determining the planet’s orientation and appearance.

Essentially, as Pluto is spinning on its side, its poles are either in direct sunlight or in shadow, while the equatorial regions are extremely cold all the time; cold enough to turn nitrogen solid. Over the course of a Pluto year – 248 Earth years – nitrogen and other exotic gases (referred to as “volatiles”) condense on the shadowed regions. Then, as Pluto goes around the sun, they heat up, become gaseous again, and prevailing weather patterns move them between the poles, passing over “Sputnik Planum” in the process, where a lot of it re-condenses, falls as “snow” and so adds more mass to the region, further affecting the planet’s orientation.

In particular, the models used by Keane and Matsuyama indicate the mass of frozen volatiles in Pluto’s heart would over time cause cracks and faults in the planet’s surface in the exact same locations where New Horizons saw them, as well as causing glacial flows of the kind seen on the planet.

Animation showing how Pluto reoriented in response to volatile ices filling "Sputnik Planum", which with the influence of Charon's gravity, gradually caused the entire dwarf planet to reorient, and align "Sputnik Planum" with Pluto's tidal axis (the line running through Pluto and Charon). If Sputnik Planitia is still accumulating ice, then Pluto may still be reorienting. Credit: Animation by James Keane. Maps of Pluto and Charon by NASA / JHU/APL / SwRI.
Animation showing how Pluto reoriented in response to volatile ices filling “Sputnik Planum”, which with the influence of Charon’s gravity, gradually caused the entire dwarf planet to reorient, and align “Sputnik Planum” with Pluto’s tidal axis (the line running through Pluto and Charon). If “Sputnik Planum” is still accumulating ice, Pluto may still be reorienting. Credit: Animation by James Keane. Maps of Pluto and Charon by NASA / JHU/APL / SwRI.

“I think this idea of a whole planet being dragged around by the cycling of volatiles is not something many people had really thought about before,” Keane said. “On Pluto, those processes are currently active, [and] its entire geology—glaciers, mountains, valleys—seems to be linked to [these] volatile processes. That’s different from most other planets and moons in our solar system.”

Keane and Matsuyama believe this evidence of faulting and stress may also indicate that Pluto’s subsurface ocean is actually frozen. “It’s like freezing ice cubes,” Keane said. “As the water turns to ice, it expands. On a planetary scale, this process breaks the surface around the planet and creates the faults we see today.”

Others aren’t so sure. A team from the University of Santa Cruz have also studied “Sputnik Planum” and its possible influence on Pluto’s evolution. While they draw the same overall conclusions, like the paper published in October, they believe there is sufficient evidence to suggest Pluto’s inner ocean is still liquid.

A cutaway of pluto's interior under "Sputnik Planum". The dark blue is thought to be a possible ocean, with the light blue representing the planet's frozen crust. Credit: Pam Engebretson
A cutaway of Pluto’s interior under “Sputnik Planum”. The dark blue is thought to be a possible ocean, with the light blue representing the planet’s frozen crust. Credit: Pam Engebretson

New Horizons co-investigator Richard Binzel, professor of earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences at MIT, thinks the truth is somewhere in between.

“Pluto is small enough that it’s just about almost cooled off but still has a little heat, and it’s about 2 percent the heat budget of the Earth, in terms of how much energy is coming out,” he says. “So we calculated Pluto’s size with its interior heat flow, and found that underneath Sputnik Planum, at those temperatures and pressures, you could have a zone of water-ice that could be at least viscous. It’s not a liquid, flowing ocean, but maybe slushy.”