Testing is underway on NASA’s next mission on the journey to Mars, a stationary lander scheduled to launch in March 2016. During the environmental testing phase at Lockheed Martin’s Space Systems facility near Denver, the lander will be exposed to extreme temperatures, vacuum conditions of nearly zero air pressure simulating interplanetary space, and a battery of other tests over the next seven months.
The lander is called InSight, an abbreviation for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport. It is about the size of a car and will be the first mission devoted to understanding the interior structure of the Red Planet. Examining the planet’s deep interior could reveal clues about how all rocky planets, including Earth, formed and evolved.
The current testing will help ensure InSight can operate in and survive deep space travel and the harsh conditions of the Martian surface.
“The assembly of InSight went very well and now it’s time to see how it performs,” said Stu Spath, InSight program manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver. “The environmental testing regimen is designed to wring out any issues with the spacecraft so we can resolve them while it’s here on Earth. This phase takes nearly as long as assembly, but we want to make sure we deliver a vehicle to NASA that will perform as expected in extreme environments.”
The spacecraft will lift off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, and land on Mars about six months later.
The technical capabilities and knowledge gained from Insight, and other Mars missions, are crucial to NASA’s journey to Mars, which includes sending astronauts to the Red Planet in the 2030s.
“Today, our robotic scientific explorers are paving the way, making great progress on the journey to Mars,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “Together, humans and robotics will pioneer Mars and the solar system.”
The first test will be a thermal vacuum test in the spacecraft’s “cruise” configuration, which will be used during its seven-month journey to Mars. In the cruise configuration, the lander is stowed inside an aeroshell capsule and the spacecraft’s cruise stage – for power, communications, course corrections and other functions on the way to Mars — is fastened to the capsule.
Other tests include vibrations simulating launch and checking for electronic interference between different parts of the spacecraft. The testing phase concludes with a second thermal vacuum test in which the spacecraft is exposed to the temperatures and atmospheric pressures it will experience as it operates on the Martian surface.
The mission’s science team includes U.S. and international co-investigators from universities, industry and government agencies.
“It’s great to see the spacecraft put together in its launch configuration,” said InSight Project Manager Tom Hoffman at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “Many teams from across the globe have worked long hours to get their elements of the system delivered for these tests. There still remains much work to do before we are ready for launch, but it is fantastic to get to this critical milestone.”
The InSight mission is led by JPL’s Bruce Banerdt. The Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales, France’s space agency, and the German Aerospace Center are each contributing a science instrument to the two-year scientific mission. InSight’s international science team includes researchers from Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Poland, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States.
JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages InSight for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. InSight is part of NASA’s Discovery Program, managed by the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company built the lander.
The Mars lander that NASA’s InSight mission will use for investigating how rocky planets formed and evolved is being assembled by Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver. In this scene from January 2015, Lockheed Martin spacecraft specialists are working on the lander in a clean room. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin
Spacecraft specialists in a clean room at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, are working on NASA’s InSight spacecraft in this January 2015 scene from the mission’s assembly and testing phase. At center is the cruise stage, which will serve multiple functions during the flight from Earth to Mars. In the background is the InSight lander. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin
In this February 2015 scene from a clean room at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, specialists are building the heat shield to protect NASA’s InSight spacecraft when it is speeding through the Martian atmosphere. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin
This parachute testing for NASA’s InSight mission to Mars was conducted inside the world’s largest wind tunnel, at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California, in February 2015. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin.
Engineers and technicians at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, run a test of deploying the solar arrays on NASA’s InSight lander in this April 30, 2015 image. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin
Spacecraft specialists at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, are preparing to attach the cruise stage of NASA’s InSight spacecraft to the top of the spacecraft’s back shell in this April 29, 2015, photo. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin
In this photo, the back shell of NASA’s InSight spacecraft is being lowered onto the mission’s lander, which is folded into its stowed configuration. The back shell and a heat shield form the aeroshell, which will protect the lander as the spacecraft plunges into the upper atmosphere of Mars. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin
This photo shows the upper side of the cruise stage of NASA’s InSight spacecraft as specialists at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, attach it to the spacecraft’s back shell. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin
In this photo, spacecraft specialists at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, are reaching up to guide lowering of the parachute cone for installation onto NASA’s InSight spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin
The science deck of NASA’s InSight lander is being turned over in this April 29, 2015, photo from InSight assembly and testing operations inside a clean room at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver. The large circular component on the deck is the protective covering to be placed over InSight’s seismometer after the seismometer is placed directly onto the Martian ground. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin
A remote galaxy shining brightly with infrared light equal to more than 300 trillion suns has been discovered using data from NASA’s WISE (Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer). This galaxy is the most luminous galaxy found to date.
“We are looking at a very intense phase of galaxy evolution” said Chao-Wei Tsai of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “This dazzling light may be from the main growth spurt of the galaxy’s black hole.”
The galaxy, known as WISE J224607.57-052635.0, may have a behemoth black hole at its belly, gorging itself on gas.
Supermassive black holes grow by drawing gas and matter into a disk around them. The disk heats up to beyond-sizzling temperatures of millions of degrees, blasting out high-energy, visible, ultraviolet, and X-ray light. The light is blocked by surrounding cocoons of dust. As the dust heats up, it radiates infrared light.
Immense black holes are common at the cores of galaxies, but finding one this big so “far back” in the cosmos is rare. Because light from the galaxy hosting the black hole has traveled 12.5 billion years to reach us, astronomers are seeing the object as it was in the distant past. The black hole was already billions of times the mass of our sun when our universe was only a tenth of its present age of 13.8 billion years.
The new study outlines three reasons why the black holes in the ELIRGs could have grown so massive. First, they may have been born big. In other words, the “seeds,” or embryonic black holes, might be bigger than thought possible.
“How do you get an elephant?” asked Peter Eisenhardt, project scientist for WISE at JPL and a co-author on the paper. “One way is start with a baby elephant.”
The other two explanations involve either breaking or bending the theoretical limit of black hole feeding, called the Eddington limit. When a black hole feeds, gas falls in and heats up, blasting out light. The pressure of the light actually pushes the gas away, creating a limit to how fast the black hole can continuously scarf down matter. If a black hole broke this limit, it could theoretically balloon in size at a breakneck pace. Black holes have previously been observed breaking this limit; however, the black hole in the study would have had to repeatedly break the limit to grow this large.
Alternatively, the black holes might just be bending this limit.
“Another way for a black hole to grow this big is for it to have gone on a sustained binge, consuming food faster than typically thought possible,” said Tsai. “This can happen if the black hole isn’t spinning that fast.”
If a black hole spins slowly enough, it won’t repel its meal as much. In the end, a slow-spinning black hole can gobble up more matter than a fast spinner.
“The massive black holes in ELIRGs could be gorging themselves on more matter for a longer period of time,” said Andrew Blain of University of Leicester in the United Kingdom, a co-author of this report. “It’s like winning a hot-dog-eating contest lasting hundreds of millions of years.”
More research is needed to solve this puzzle of these dazzlingly luminous galaxies. The team has plans to better determine the masses of the central black holes. Knowing these objects’ true hefts will help reveal their history, as well as that of other galaxies, in this very crucial and frenzied chapter of our cosmos.
WISE has been finding more of these oddball galaxies in infrared images of the entire sky captured in 2010. By viewing the whole sky with more sensitivity than ever before, WISE has been able to catch rare cosmic specimens that might have been missed otherwise.
The new study reports a total of 20 new ELIRGs, including the most luminous galaxy found to date. These galaxies were not found earlier because of their distance, and because dust converts their powerful visible light into an incredible outpouring of infrared light.
“We found in a related study with WISE that as many as half of the most luminous galaxies only show up well in infrared light,” said Tsai.
JPL manages and operates WISE for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The spacecraft was put into hibernation mode in 2011, after it scanned the entire sky twice, thereby completing its main objectives. In September 2013, WISE was reactivated, renamed NEOWISE and assigned a new mission to assist NASA’s efforts to identify potentially hazardous near-Earth objects.
NASA is set to embark on a journey that will usher in a new era for Americans in space, but we’ll have to wait for another day to see it happen.
The space agency was set to launch its Orion spacecraft on Thursday for a test flight around the Earth. The original launch time was set for 7:05 a.m. ET, but the launch was pushed back multiple times due to winds, some minor technical issues and, at one point, a stray boat.
NASA eventually scrubbed Thursday’s launch. The second attempt will be on Friday with the same launch window of 7:05 a.m. to 9:44 a.m. ET.
Orion is unmanned — for now. The spacecraft is capable of carrying humans deeper into space, beyond the moon. NASA’s ultimate goal for Orion is a roundtrip manned Mars mission.
How the test flight will work
NASA’s Orion historic test flight will last less than five hours.
Orion is aiming for two orbits on its first run. On the second lap around Earth, the spacecraft should reach a peak altitude of 3,600 miles, high enough to ensure a re-entry speed of 20,000 mph. NASA will test Orion’s high-speed re-entry systems such as avionics, attitude control, parachutes and the heat shield.
Splashdown will be in the Pacific off the Mexican Baja coast, where Navy ships are waiting for the recovery.
The US Navy and NASA recovery teams are on station off the cost of California and ready to recover Orion after landing.
Lockheed Martin Corp., which is handling the $370 million test flight for NASA, opted for the powerful Delta IV rocket this time around. Future Orion missions will rely on NASA’s still-in-development megarocket, known as SLS, or Space Launch System. Orion’s first launch with SLS is targeted for 2018.
The video below shows how this test flight will work for Orion:
NASA’s last trip beyond low-Earth orbit in a vehicle built for astronauts was Apollo 17 in December 1972. Though the space agency is using new technology for Orion, which can carry six astronauts, it learned a lot from Apollo, which transported three.
What is so important about Mars
Mars is a harsh planet. It’s choked with dust. There’s no oxygen. It has a paper-thin atmosphere. It’s dry, and the temperature there is always well below freezing.
There are miles of sweeping deserts, plunging canyons and mountains higher than the tallest on Earth. But the landscape all painted with the same color palette—rust orange, milk chocolate browns and muted reds. And it never ends. Even the sky is a hazy orange almost all day.
But Mars wasn’t always this way. Mars has a past — one with water and life. On ancient Mars, you would have woken up to a sky that always seemed as though it were in limbo between sunrise and sunset. At noon, you would have seen bright pink with hints of orange. There was water, but it probably wasn’t blue.
The story of Mars is actually one of an underdog. Had it not been for its small size, this planet’s atmosphere would have stayed intact and may have very well continued to thrive.
So, what happened to our neighbor? And, perhaps more importantly for humans, does Earth face a similar fate? How Mars met this violent, desolate end is still a mystery, one that we can probably only solve by getting humans there.
After the $2.5 billion Curiosity rover, which is still trekking around and doing science on Mars, President Obama vowed to get a manned mission off the ground in the 2020s.
Spacesuit engineers demonstrate how four crew members would be arranged for launch inside the Orion spacecraft.
At one of the world’s deepest undersea hydrothermal vents, tiny shrimp are piled on top of each other, layer upon layer, crawling on rock chimneys that spew hot water. Bacteria, inside the shrimps’ mouths and in specially evolved gill covers, produce organic matter that feed the crustaceans.
Scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, are studying this mysterious ecosystem in the Caribbean to get clues about what life could be like on other planetary bodies, such as Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, which has a subsurface ocean.
“For two-thirds of the Earth’s history, life has existed only as microbial life,” said Max Coleman, senior research scientist at JPL. “On Europa, the best chance for life would be microbial.”
The particular bacteria in the vents are able to survive in extreme environments because of chemosynthesis, a process that works in the absence of sunlight and involves organisms getting energy from chemical reactions. In this case, the bacteria use hydrogen sulfide, a chemical abundant at the vents, to make organic matter. The temperatures at the vents can climb up to a scorching 750 degrees Fahrenheit (400 degrees Celsius), but waters just an inch away are cool enough to support the shrimp. The shrimp are blind, but have thermal receptors in the backs of their heads.
“The overall objective of our research is to see how much life or biomass can be supported by the chemical energy of the hot submarine springs,” Coleman said.
Hydrogen sulfide is toxic to organisms in high concentrations, but the bacteria feeding the shrimp need a certain amount of this chemical to survive. Nature has worked out a solution: The shrimp position themselves on the very border between normal, oxygenated ocean water and sulfide-rich water so that they and the bacteria can coexist in harmony.
“It’s a remarkable symbiotic system,” Coleman said.
Coleman was part of a team led by Chris German at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, that discovered these vents in 2009, off the west coast of Cuba. This research, funded under NASA’s Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets program, detected the vents by picking up the chemical signals of their plumes of water in the ocean.
The researchers returned in 2012 on the RV Atlantis with a robotic vehicle called Jason, supported by the National Science Foundation. Scientists collected extensive specimens from two hydrothermal vent fields: The Von Damm field at 7,500 feet (2,300 meters) and Piccard at more than 16,000 feet (4,900 meters), which is the world’s deepest.
Coleman and collaborator Cindy Van Dover, marine biologist at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, examined the shrimp for the first time when the same team returned in 2013 on the RV Falkor, provided by the Schmidt Ocean Institute in Palo Alto, California. Van Dover returned soon after using the robotic vehicle Hercules aboard the Exploration Vessel Nautilus, and did more collections and studies.
A bonus finding from studying this extreme oasis of life is that some of the shrimp, called Rimicaris hybisae, appear to be cannibalistic. The researchers discovered that when the shrimp arrange themselves in dense groups, bacteria seem to be the main food supplier, as the shrimp likely absorb the carbohydrates that the bacteria produce. But in areas where the shrimp are distributed more sparsely, the shrimp are more likely to turn carnivorous, eating snails, other crustaceans, and even each other.
Although the researchers did not directly observe Rimicaris hybisae practicing cannibalism, scientists did find bits of crustaceans in the shrimps’ guts. And Rimicaris hybisae is the most abundant crustacean species in the area by far.
“Whether an animal like this could exist on Europa heavily depends on the actual amount of energy that’s released there, through hydrothermal vents,” said Emma Versteegh, a postdoctoral fellow at JPL.
The group received funding for shrimp-collecting expeditions from NASA’s Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets (ASTEP) program, through a project called “Oases for Life.” That name is especially appropriate for this investigation, Coleman said.
“You go along the ocean bottom and there’s nothing, effectively,” Coleman said. “And then suddenly we get these hydrothermal vents and a massive ecosystem. It’s just literally teeming with life.”
This research was conducted in collaboration with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Duke University. The Schmidt Ocean Institute provided technical and financial support for marine and underwater robotic operations during the 2013 RV Falkor cruise. The California Institute of Technology in Pasadena manages JPL for NASA.
Spring is here and ready to capture the world’s attention with a total lunar eclipse. The eclipse will begin early on the morning of April 15 at approximately 2 a.m. EDT. If you have questions about the eclipse, this will be your chance!
NASA will host two events for NASA moon experts to answer your questions. On Monday, April 14 from 2-3 p.m. EDT, NASA planetary scientist Renee Weber will take your questions via a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything). The Reddit page will be live on April 14 at approximately 1:45 p.m. EDT, and the link will be promoted on this page. Convert to your local time here.
NASA astronomer Mitzi Adams and astrophysicist Alphonse Sterling will also answer questions in a live web chat, beginning on April 15 at 1 a.m. EDT and continuing through the end of the eclipse (approximately 5 a.m. EDT). The chat module will go live on this page at approximately 12:45 a.m. EDT.