Following this mornings flyby of Pluto the New Horizons spacecraft has phoned home. And tomorrow morning it will starting returning the high priority data from its numerous observations.
The spacecraft which was launched in Jan, 2006 has traveled more than 3.2 billion miles to reach the Pluto system, during the 9.5 years of travel most of it was spent alone in deep space in hibernation, occasionally the mission team would wake it up to check out the systems.
At the end of last year the spacecraft woke up to begin checkouts in preparation for the flyby operations which begun in Jan this year. As the spacecraft approached the Pluto system the LORRI instrument took images to allow the navigation team to check its approach and make any corrections needed so that they could arrive in the target window just 90 x 60 miles in size. To put that in perspective, that is like hitting a golf ball on the east coast of the USA with the intention of getting a hole in one on the west coast.
During the flyby the spacecraft operated in autonomous mode where it focused solely on the completion of the observations that had been pre-programmed once those were complete it turned its main antenna back to Earth and started to transmit its data.
It may be many years before all the data that is returned by New Horizons is fully analyzed and the text books written on the planet.
New Horizons has completed its closest approach to Pluto with a historic flyby at 7:50am EDT today, however we will not hear back from the spacecraft for another 12 hours as it will now turn around and continue observations as it moves away from the system, this time with our Sun in the background.
The spacecraft has been operating autonomously and until we hear back later today we will not really know how successful it was, did it complete all the planned observations? Did it encounter something during flyby that we had not previously seen?
Now all we can do is wait until this evening to see just how successful the spacecraft was and begin to receive the reams of data that was collected. Due to the distance from Earth it will take almost 16 months for everything to be returned. Now the patience of the team will be tested more than during the 9.5 years it took to get to Pluto as they know the data is on the spacecraft and they can’t do anything to speed up the return of it.
Check back this evening for updates on the success of the mission.
By this time tomorrow NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will be zooming past the Dwarf Plant Pluto capturing details of the planet from just 12,500 km (7,800 mi) away closer than any spacecraft has ever been.
The spacecraft is now deep in the encounter mode of operation, this means that if anything goes wrong it will automatically repair itself and continue operating. Previously the vehicle, as it did last week, would have failed over to the backup computer, re-orient itself towards Earth and then wait for commands to be sent back. However due to the limited time of the flyby valuable data would be lost if the computer couldn’t automatically recover.
Due to the distance from Earth it will take more than a year to send all the data that is capture back to Earth. While the spacecraft will be more then 600m miles away from Pluto by the time all the data is returned to Earth new revelations about the Pluto system will still be discovered during that time.
Below are some of the latest images returned by the spacecraft
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is just 7 days away from its closest approach to Pluto, and this week we are going to look at the amazing images that have already been returned. As the spacecraft gets closer and closer we are going to learn much more about the Planet and its moons.
Before we take a look at the images however a quick update on the health of the vehicle. As most of you probably now 4th July a Safe-Mode event occurred which resulted in a period of lost communications. The vehicle quickly recovered from this by switching to the backup computer and re-establishing communications. The Mission control team reported on Sunday that the fault was caused by a timing issue in the command sequencing planned for the final flyby and because this is the only time this sequence will be used they have resumed normal science operations already.
As the spacecraft has been closing in on the Pluto/Charon system the images it has returned have been getting better and better. Initially the images were captured by the LORRI instrument as that was the only one capable of capturing images at distance. However the Ralph and Alice instruments are now online and have enhanced our view. Over the next week we can expected to see even more detailed images appear, below are a sampling of the images publicly available.
Just 10 days before New Horizons closest approach to Pluto it suffered a Safe-Mode event on Saturday causing a lost of communications when the spacecraft handled the event and switched to its backup computer system.
Thankfully the backup system took over and re-established communications and begun sending data back to Mission Control to allow them to determine what caused the Safe-Mode and come up with a plan to resolve it
A New Horizons Anomaly Review Board (ARB) was convened at 4 p.m. EDT on the 4th to gather information on the problem and initiate a recovery plan. The team is now working to return New Horizons to its original flight plan. Due to the 9-hour, round trip communication delay that results from operating a spacecraft almost 3 billion miles (4.9 billion kilometers) from Earth, full recovery is expected to take from one to several days; New Horizons will be temporarily unable to collect science data during that time.
Status updates will be issued as new information is available.
A journey that started 3451 days ago aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V is rapidly closing in on its primary destination Pluto. The New Horizons spacecraft will be the first to visit the Pluto system and will bring the distant planet and its five moons to life.
In 14 days it will reach its closest approach to the planet before speeding on further into the Kuiper Belt and eventually another destination (to be decided later).
During the flyby a number of different instruments will be gathering data, it will take more than a year to return all the data to Earth due to how far away the spacecraft is.
The following instruments are on board the spacecraft :-
The Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (“LORRI”) is a long focal length imager designed for high resolution and responsivity at visible wavelengths. The instrument is equipped with a high-resolution 1024×1024 monochromatic CCD imager with a 208.3 mm (8.20 in) aperture giving a resolution of 5 μrad (~1 asec). The CCD is chilled far below freezing by a passive radiator on the antisolar face of the spacecraft. This temperature differential requires insulation, and isolation from the rest of the structure. The Ritchey–Chretien mirrors and metering structure are made of silicon carbide, to boost stiffness, reduce weight, and prevent warping at low temperatures. The optical elements sit in a composite light shield, and mount with titanium and fibreglass for thermal isolation. Overall mass is 8.6 kg (19 lb), with the Optical tube assembly (OTA) weighing about 5.6 kg (12 lb), for one of the largest silicon-carbide telescopes flown at the time (now superseded by Herschel). Principal investigator: Andy Cheng, Applied Physics Laboratory, Data: LORRI image search at jhuapl.edu
Solar Wind At Pluto (SWAP) is a toroidal electrostatic analyzer and retarding potential analyzer (RPA), that makes up one of the two instruments comprising New Horizons ’ Plasma and high-energy particle spectrometer suite (PAM), the other being PEPSSI. SWAP measures particles of up to 6.5 keV and, because of the tenuous solar wind at Pluto’s distance, the instrument has the largest aperture of any such instrument ever flown. Principal investigator: David McComas, Southwest Research Institute
Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation (PEPSSI) is a time of flight ion and electron sensor that makes up one of the two instruments comprising New Horizons ’ Plasma and high-energy particle spectrometer suite (PAM), the other being SWAP. Unlike SWAP, which measures particles of up to 6.5 keV, PEPSSI goes up to 1 MeV. Principal investigator: Ralph McNutt Jr., Applied Physics Laboratory
Alice is an ultraviolet imaging spectrometer that makes one (of two) photographic instruments comprising New Horizons ’ Pluto Exploration Remote Sensing Investigation (PERSI); the other being the Ralph telescope. It resolves 1,024 wavelength bands in the far and extreme ultraviolet (from 50–180 nm), over 32 view fields. Its goal is to determine the atmospheric composition of Pluto. This Alice instrument is derived from another Alice aboard the ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft. Principal investigator: Alan Stern, Southwest Research Institute
The Ralph telescope, 6 cm (2.4 in) in aperture, is one of two photographic instruments that make up New Horizons ’ Pluto Exploration Remote Sensing Investigation (PERSI), with the other being the Alice instrument. Ralph has two separate channels: a visible-light CCD imager (MVIC- Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera) with broadband and color channels, and a near-infrared imaging spectrometer, LEISA (Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array). LEISA is derived from a similar instrument on the EO-1 mission. Ralph was named after Alice’s husband on The Honeymooners, and was designed after Alice. Principal investigator: Alan Stern, Southwest Research Institute
The Student Dust Counter (SDC), built by students at the University of Colorado Boulder, will operate continuously through the trajectory to make dust measurements. It consists of a detector panel, about 460 mm × 300 mm (18 in × 12 in), mounted on the antisolar face of the spacecraft (the ram direction), and an electronics box within the spacecraft. The detector contains fourteen polyvinylidene difluoride (PVDF) panels, twelve science and two reference, which generate voltage when impacted. Effective collecting area is 0.125 m2 (1.35 sq ft). No dust counter has operated past the orbit of Uranus; models of dust in the outer Solar System, especially the Kuiper belt, are speculative. VBSDC is always turned on measuring the masses of the interplanetary and interstellar dust particles (in the range of nano- and picograms) as they collide with the PVDF panels mounted on the New Horizons spacecraft. The measured data is expected to greatly contribute to the understanding of the dust spectra of the Solar System. The dust spectra can then be compared with those observed via telescope of other stars, giving new clues as to where Earth-like planets can be found in the universe. The dust counter is named for Venetia Burney, who first suggested the name “Pluto” at the age of 11. A thirteen-minute short film about VBSDC garnered an Emmy award for student achievement in 2006. Principal investigator: Mihaly Horanyi, University of Colorado Boulder
The Radio Science Experiment (REX) will use an ultrastable crystal oscillator (essentially a calibrated crystal in a miniature oven) and some additional electronics to conduct radio science investigations using the communications channels. These are small enough to fit on a single card. Since there are two redundant communications subsystems, there are two, identical REX circuit boards. Principal investigators: Len Tyler and Ivan Linscott, Stanford University
Next week we will take a look at some of the images that have already been returned as New Horizons approaches Pluto.
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is now less than one AU from Pluto and moving closer by 873,000 miles per day. This week it made a slight course correction to ensure it is able to complete the scientific objectives as it flies past the planet in July.
Launched in Jan 2006 the spacecraft has traveled past Jupiter on its way to the dwarf planet and will be the second NASA spacecraft this year to explore one this year. As it continues to get closer the quality of the images that are returned will improve as we for the first time get to see detailed images of the planet.
Due to its speed the spacecraft will not be able to orbit the planet so all the experiments must be performed as the vehicle passes at more then 33,000 mph. Once it has completed its observations a second destination will then be targeted somewhere in the Kuiper belt, the region of surrounding our solar system far beyond the known planets. However while it is traveling to that destination it will spend most of 2016 transmitting all the data that was gathered during the flyby.
The science payload includes seven instruments:
Ralph: Visible and infrared imager/spectrometer; provides color, composition and thermal maps.
Alice: Ultraviolet imaging spectrometer; analyzes composition and structure of Pluto’s atmosphere and looks for atmospheres around Charon and Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs).
It is hard to believe that 2015 is already here, we would like to wish all of you a Happy New Year and look forward to continuing to serve you with fantastic Space News throughout the year.
This year promises to be an exciting year as NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft races towards Pluto, Dawn moves closer to Ceres, Boeing and SpaceX are scheduled to meet more milestones on the Commercial Crew program, the International Space Station hosts it’s first year long mission, and lots more.
As well as reporting on US and ISS launches, we also plan to bring you some new content including looking Beyond ISS, a Trip to Mars, more Future Now articles and plenty more.
As you read this article the New Horizons spacecraft will be closing in on the Pluto system for a July flyby for our first close encounter with the planet and it’s moons, in addition the Dawn spacecraft which has been in space since 2007 and spent 14 months at Vesta is scheduled to arrive at Ceres in April. For this reason we would like to declare this as the year of the Dwarf Planets to support the teams who have worked on and continue to work on these amazing missions.
Today NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft passed the Orbit of Neptune exactly 25 years after Voyager 2 passed the same planet. At the time it passed the orbit Neptune was 4 million kilometers away as it proceeded on it’s orbit around the sun.
To celebrate this milestone NASA talked about the mission of New Horizons as it quickly approaches the Pluto/Charon system. New Horizons is already taking images of the Pluto/Charon system as it approaches and will continue to as it gets closer.
Due to the distance from the Sun the New Horizons spacecraft is powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) which will give it the ability to perform science for many years with the hope of travelling to a secondary object in the Kuiper Belt after the Pluto/Charon flyby.
The New Horizons spacecraft has the following scientific instruments that will be used during the Pluto/Charon flyby next year.
Ralph: Visible and infrared imager/spectrometer; provides color, composition and thermal maps.
Alice: Ultraviolet imaging spectrometer; analyzes composition and structure of Pluto’s atmosphere and looks for atmospheres around Charon and Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs).
LORRI: (Long Range Reconnaissance Imager) telescopic camera; obtains encounter data at long distances, maps Pluto’s farside and provides high resolution geologic data.
SWAP: (Solar Wind Around Pluto) Solar wind and plasma spectrometer; measures atmospheric “escape rate” and observes Pluto’s interaction with solar wind.
PEPSSI: (Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation) Energetic particle spectrometer; measures the composition and density of plasma (ions) escaping from Pluto’s atmosphere.
SDC: (Student Dust Counter) Built and operated by students; measures the space dust peppering New Horizons during its voyage across the solar system.
This is the first spacecraft to visit the Pluto/Charon system and will give us an amazing amount of information that we have only been able to guess at until now. The image below shows Pluto taken by Hubble and Earth taken from the same resolution, as you can see from the image it is very difficult to determine anything from that distance.
When New Horizons was first launched towards Pluto the plan was for it to complete it’s mission and then fly on to another object in the Kuiper belt and perform the same observations as it does at Pluto. The second destination has not yet been choose and researchers are now utilizing the power of the Hubble Space Telescope to aid the search. While there is still plenty of time the science team will need to ensure they determined the orbit of the object so they can make any adjustments to the path of New Horizons once it leaves Pluto.
NASA’s Messenger spacecraft currently in orbit of Mercury has allowed scientists for the first time to spot a hot flow anomaly or HFA. A HFA is a classic space weather event which has been previous spotted at Venus, Earth, Mars and Saturn.
Last week a number of teams took part in the NASA Centennial Sample Return Robot Challenge that was hosted by Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worcester, MA.
For this years challenge there were two levels available, the first level teams would compete for 30 minutes and had to return the designated sample to their starting platform with the robot operating complete autonomously. Fourteen teams competed for this level with a single $5000 prize being awarded to the Mountaineers, first-time competitors from West Virginia University, Morgantown.
For the second level, teams had 2 hours to complete the challenge, this time they had to autonomously collect as many samples as they could during the allotted time with the prize money based on total weigh collected within the rules which can be found here. This year there was only one team competing for this level, Team Survey who had completed level one last year, unfortunately due to a malfunction during start up of the robot they were not able to complete the challenge. They did reboot the robot and performed a demonstration run on the course allowing them to collect very valuable data on the performance of the robot.
This was the third year of the competition hosted by WPI, next year Mountaineers and Team Survey will both be eligible for level 2 if they choose to compete.
Airbus and Safran join forces in Launcher market
Love them or hate them SpaceX are clearly making waves in the satellite launcher business, this is born out by the news this week that Airbus Group and Safran are further strengthening there relationship by creating a 50-50 joint venture to combine the launcher systems from Airbus and propulsion systems from Safran.
Researchers in Chile have observed 800 celestial objects that are up to 100 times heavier than our Sun, and concluded that 90% turn out to be multiple systems. Current telescopes do not have the power to see individual objects with a multiple system however so they can only go by the oscillation of the brightness of the object while being observed.
Astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) will soon be able to enjoy a freshly brewed coffee instead of the instant coffee they currently use. The ISSpresso machine is a capsule based espresso machine built by coffee retailer Lavazza and aerospace company Argotec. It is due to fly up to ISS later this year to coincide with the expedition of European Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti who will not only be the first Italian woman in space but if all goes as planned by the first to enjoy a real Italian espresso in space.
Earth’s gravity causes Lunar bulges
For the first time scientists have been able to observe the bulge on the surface of the moon that is created by the gravitational pull of the Earth on the moon, using NASA satellites. Due to the size of both the Earth and Moon they are in a gravitational tug-of-war which stretches both and causes them to have a slight oval shape.
On Earth we see the effects of this in the tides, however on the moon it is much harder as it is solid on the surface. Careful observations of the surface have shown a 20 inch bulge on each side of the moon. While the same side of the moon faces the earth this bulge does move around slightly due to the wobble of the moon during it’s orbit.
The final antenna for the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) observatory, high on the Chajnantor Plateau in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, has arrived. The array consists of 66 antenna’s which can work together to form a single massive radio telescope. The array has been operation since 2011 and has already returned stunning images of the universe.
The debate as to whether or not there are large planets beyond Pluto has been going on for decades and with the recent discovery of 2012 VP113 has revived interest in the subject. Observations of extreme trans-Neptunian objects seems to indicate that they are being shepherded by a distant, undiscovered planet larger than Earth.
Astronomers for the European space observatory Gaia, which was launched last December have run into a problem with stray light entering the spacecraft. This stray light will effect how well it can see the stars it is observing, the Astronomers stated that this would only effect the faintest of stars. They also announced that the optics are not transmitting as efficiently as designed but that the amount of scientific data return will still be immense.
A team of scientists utilizing supercomputers have developed a new absorption spectrum for methane that is 2000 times more comprehensive than before. This will allow Astronomers to sniff out Methane on alien planets and aid in the search for life beyond Earth.
Giant Telescopes pair up to image near-Earth Asteroid
Scientists from NASA working with a team from the Arecibo Observatory have taken radar images of Asteroid “2014 HQ124”. Captured on the 8th June they are some of the most detailed radar images of a near-Earth asteroid ever obtained.
This week United Launch Alliance (ULA) signed contracts with multiple US companies to allow them to mature next-generation rocket engine concepts. ULA would like to be able to replace the RD-180 rocket engines currently sourced from Russia with home-grown engines. The contracts call for first launch in 2019.
Boeing are preparing to send out 215 layoff notices to employee’s currently working on the Commercial Crew entry CST-100. Under the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN) they are required to give 60 days notice of any pending layoffs.
The next round of Commercial Crew awards is due over the summer, due to the funding it seems likely only one of the three competitors Sierra Nevada, Boeing and SpaceX will be awarded a CCtCap contract to continue working on there system.
NASA Dark Energy Mission could spot 3,000 more exo-planets
A NASA mission designed to probe the nature of dark energy may also help discover thousands more exo-planets. The Wide-field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) which is due to launch in the mid-2020’s will be able to capture 300 megapixels per image and would rely on gravitational microlensing to enable it to capture the images.
NASA has issued a Request For Proposal (RFP) for commercial services for the ISS.
The International Space Station (ISS) Commercial Resupply Services 2 (CRS2) contract, a pre-solicitation conference is currently planned for August 7th with final proposals to be submitted by November 14th 2014.
The services requested are delivery of pressurized and unpressurized cargo, return and disposal of pressurized cargo, disposal of unpressurized cargo, special tasks and studies, and ground support services for the end-to-end cargo resupply services. The supplies to be delivered by terms of the contract include air, water, food, clothing, medicine, spare parts, and scientific experiments for use in the U.S. and International Partner experimental modules.
Russian EVA completed successfully
Cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev conducted an extended seven-hour 23-minute spacewalk outside the International Space Station Thursday, installing a telemetry antenna, re-positioning an experiment and jettisoning a mounting fixture after moving another experiment to a recently installed payload boom.
They ran into several issues during the spacewalk trying to remove bolts that had been in place since the Zvezda module was first launched in July 2000, however were able to overcome those issues and complete the tasks successfully.
This was the first spacewalk for both Alexander and Oleg.
NASA wants to send Quadcopter Drone to Titan
While one NASA probe whizzes by Saturn’s moon Titan on Thursday to analyze its atmosphere, the American space agency is also considering a plan to send a quadcopter drone capable of searching for life.
The ambitious idea was outlined by Larry Matthies, a research scientist and supervisor at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in California, and involves a drone that would be capable of flying out of a lander or balloon. The drone would explore the moon’s landscape and seas, collect samples, and return to the “mothership” in order to recharge its batteries and submit whatever it collects for analysis.
Sierra Nevada Corporation to Acquire Orbital Technologies Corporation
Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), headquartered in Sparks, Nevada, announces that it has signed a definitive purchase agreement to acquire the Orbital Technologies Corporation (ORBITEC) as a wholly-owned subsidiary of SNC. ORBITEC is a leading subsystems integrator and high technology development company based in Madison, Wisconsin. ORBITEC’s strong liquid rocket propulsion, life science and support, and fire suppression technology portfolio will enhance both SNC Space Systems’ Propulsion and Spacecraft Systems’ product lines.
The European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) groundbreaking took place this week with a live Webcast of the first blast designed to flatten the mountaintop that the telescope will be built on.
The E-ELT will be the biggest optical/near-infrared telescope built so far with a 39m primary mirror made up of 768 hexagonal segments each 1.4m widfe and 5cm thick. It will collect more light than all of the existing 8–10-metre class telescopes on the planet combined, and 100 million times more light than the human eye.
Russian Dnepr rocket lofts record haul of 37 satellites
A Russian Dnepr rocket launched a record-breaking thirty-seven satellites on Friday morning local time, deploying a cluster of spacecraft for scientific research and commercial operation. The mission departed on schedule from Dombarovsky in Southern Russia at 01:11 local time (19:11 UTC on Thursday).
This launch saw the record for most spacecraft launched by a single rocket broken for the fourth time in less than a year.
NASA Announces Latest Progress, Upcoming Milestones in Hunt for Asteroids
NASA is on the hunt for an asteroid to capture with a robotic spacecraft, redirect to a stable orbit around the moon, and send astronauts to study in the 2020s — all on the agency’s human Path to Mars. Agency officials announced on Thursday recent progress to identify candidate asteroids for its Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), increase public participation in the search for asteroids, and advance the mission’s design.
NASA plans to launch the ARM robotic spacecraft in 2019 and will make a final choice of the asteroid for the mission about a year before the spacecraft launches. NASA is working on two concepts for the mission: the first is to fully capture a very small asteroid in open space, and the second is to collect a boulder-sized sample off of a much larger asteroid. Both concepts would require redirecting an asteroid less than 32 feet (10 meters) in size into the moon’s orbit. The agency will choose between these two concepts in late 2014 and further refine the mission’s design.
This week SpaceX conducted another test flight of it’s F9R rocket, this time with deployable fins on the side of the rocket, these are designed to give the rocket more control during descent and is another step towards Elon Musk’s goal of having a fully re-usable Falcon 9 first stage.
No word yet when/if these will be flown on an actual Falcon 9 vehicle.
There may also be a possibility of testing the controlled descent on the Orbcomm flight scheduled for tonight.
SpaceX Launch later today (hopefully)
The Orbcomm OG2 launch has been rescheduled for later today, last Sunday’s attempt to scrapped to allow Orbcomm more time to verify their satellites were in a good configuration for launch. The launch window starts of 6:08pm EDT and extends for 53 minutes.
At time of publishing the forecast shows only a 30% change that weather would co-operate, with a slightly better 60% tomorrow. However the last launch had a low change of launching and they plugged away and got off the ground on time so there is a chance it will still go.