Japan’s Akatsuki spacecraft has arrived in orbit around Venus, five years after an engine failure scuttled its first attempt, Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) officials announced in December 9. The $300 million Akatsuki mission launched in May 2010 along with JAXA’s IKAROS (Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun) spacecraft, which became the first probe ever to deploy and use a solar sail in interplanetary space.
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On Sunday (Dec. 6), Akatsuki fired its small attittude-control thrusters for 20 minutes to achieve Venus orbit (its main engine was pronounced dead long ago). After a few days of calculations and computations, mission controllers have now determined that the maneuver worked.
“The orbit period is 13 days and 14 hours. We also found that the orbiter is flying in the same direction as that of Venus’s rotation,” JAXA officials wrote in a statement today. “The Akatsuki is in good health.”
Akatsuki’s current path takes it as close as 250 miles (400 kilometers) to Venus, and as far away as 273,000 miles (440,000 km), officials added. This orbit is much more elliptical than the one Akatsuki was supposed to achieve five years ago, which featured a period of 30 hours and an apoapsis (most distant point from Venus) of 50,000 miles (80,000 km) or so.
Akatsuki’s handlers will soon deploy and test three of the probe’s six instruments, to make sure they’re working properly — the other three are already known to be in good condition — and then conduct initial observations with all of this scientific gear for about three months, JAXA officials said.
At the same time, Akatsuki will maneuver to a less-elliptical final science orbit with a period of about nine days and an apoapsis around 193,000 miles (310,000 km). The probe should achieve that orbit, and commence regular operations, by April 2016.
Despite the long delay, the drama and the highly elliptical orbit, Akatsuki should still be able to accomplish most of its science goals, JAXA officials have said.
Akatsuki is the second interplanetary mission in Japan’s history. The country’s first, the Nozomi Mars probe, failed to arrive as planned at the Red Planet in 2003. In 2007, Japan’s Kaguya orbiter successfully launched to the moon to study the lunar surface from orbit. Kaguya’s mission ended in 2009 and it ultimately crashed into the moon’s surface.
In the past 25 years, astronomers have confirmed the existence of more than 1,900 exoplanets, or alien planets around other stars, this factor is known by the scientists as “multihabitable systems” and they have confirmed that there are billions of habitable planets because they lie in the habitable zones of their parent stars, where temperatures are right for liquid water to exist, and thus life as it is known on Earth.
Astronomers have recently discovered two exoplanets around the star Kepler-36 where their orbits come so close together that each rises in the night sky of its sister world like an exotic full moon. Kepler-36 is located about 1,200 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus (The Swan).
Study lead author Jason Steffen at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas stated that: “If this system was scaled up to the size of the Earth‘s orbit, then the two planets would only be one-tenth of one astronomical unit apart at their closest approach — that’s only 40 times the distance to the moon.”
The discovery of Kepler-36’s two planets raises the possibility of multihabitable systems with two or more Earth-sized planets orbiting near each other in the habitable zones of their stars. The scientists ran a series of computer models simulating multihabitable systems to see what life might be like on such worlds.
The researchers discovered that climates might be stable on planets in multihabitable systems. The seasons and climate on Earth depend on its obliquity, or the 23.5-degree tilt of the Earth’s axis relative to its orbit around the sun — for instance, at Earth’s poles, the lengths of days and nights change drastically over the course of the year, but at the equator, they stay about the same over time. A change in obliquity of only a few degrees can set off ice ages, but the scientists found that it was unlikely that gravitational interactions between planets on closely neighboring orbits would trigger large changes in the obliquities of the orbits of those worlds.
“We found that the obliquities of the planets in multihabitable systems were not really affected by their close orbits,” study co-author Gongjie Li at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., said in a statement. “Only in rare instances would their climates be altered in dramatic ways. Otherwise, their behavior was similar to the planets in the solar system.”
The scientists also found that each planet in this scenario could be capable of seeding its partner with life. Cosmic impacts regularly blast debris off planets that can crash on nearby planets — for example, past research discovered more than 100 meteorites of Martian origin on Earth. In principle, such meteorites could bring life-bearing material from one world to another, a process called lithopanspermia.
It remains uncertain whether lithopanspermia was possible between Mars and Earth. The great distance between the planets means it would take a lot of time for meteorites to bridge the gap between the worlds, making it less likely for any hitchhikers to survive. Powerful impacts are also needed to hurl meteorites across such a vast distance, and the energy from such collisions might easily kill any potential stowaways.
However, since planets in multihabitable systems are much closer to each other than Mars and Earth are, microbes are more likely to both survive the impacts that launch them into space and the long times they would spend traversing interplanetary space.
The researchers even suggested that possessing a habitable companion might help life survive on distant exoplanets.
“The climate isn’t likely to be any worse in multihabitable systems, and the possibility of two planets sharing the biological burden could help the system traverse the inevitable rough times,” Steffen said in a statement.
The scientists concluded that multihabitable systems are among the few scenarios “where life — intelligent life in particular — could exist in two places at the same time and in the same system,” Steffen said in a statement. “You can imagine that if civilizations did arise on both planets, they could communicate with each other for hundreds of years before they ever met face-to-face. It’s certainly food for thought.”
However, “we have not seen a real system with aliens that are communicating with each other,” Steffen emphasized.
The scientists detailed their findings Tuesday (Dec. 1) at the Extreme Solar Systems III meeting in Waikoloa Beach, Hawaii. The findings have also been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal.
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is now sending the closest photos of Ceres and it shows the small world’s features in unprecedented detail, including Ceres’ tall, conical mountain; crater formation features and narrow, braided fractures.
“Dawn is performing flawlessly in this new orbit as it conducts its ambitious exploration. The spacecraft’s view is now three times as sharp as in its previous mapping orbit, revealing exciting new details of this intriguing dwarf planet,” said Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer and mission director, based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.
Dawn is the first mission to visit a dwarf planet, and the first to orbit two distinct solar system targets. It orbited protoplanet Vesta for 14 months in 2011 and 2012, and arrived at Ceres on March 6, 2015.
Believe it or not, a year from now your name could land on Mars aboard NASA’s next Red Planet mission.
NASA is inviting people around the world to submit their names to be engraved on a silicon chip that will be affixed to the InSight Mars lander, which is scheduled to be launched on February 2016 and land on Mars seven months later.
According to Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the InSight mission (formerly called GEMS), will place a lander on Mars designed to drill beneath the surface and investigate the planet’s deep interior to better understand Mars’ evolution as a rocky planet. As part of its investigation, InSight will use a seismometer and a heat-flow probe to study the interior structure of the Red Planet.
Jim Green, director of planetary science at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said: “By participating in this opportunity to send your name aboard InSight to the Red Planet, you’re showing that you’re part of that journey and the future of space exploration.”
People who submit their names will earn “frequent flier” points that reflect their participation in NASA exploration missions. Last December, more than 1.38 million people got points when their names flew aboard the first test mission of the Orion capsule, a spacecraft that will help NASA astronauts get to asteroids, Mars and other faraway destinations.
The next opportunity to rack up points will come in 2018, when Orion and NASA’s Space Launch System megarocket launch together for the first time. That unmanned flight, known as Exploration Mission-1, will send Orion on a seven-day trip around the moon to test out many of the capsule’s critical systems.
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NASA and Microsoft have teamed up to develop software called OnSight, a new technology that will enable scientists to work virtually on Mars using wearable technology called Microsoft HoloLens.
Developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, OnSight will give scientists a means to plan and, along with the Mars Curiosity rover, conduct science operations on the Red Planet.
“OnSight gives our rover scientists the ability to walk around and explore Mars right from their offices,” said Dave Lavery, program executive for the Mars Science Laboratory mission at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “It fundamentally changes our perception of Mars, and how we understand the Mars environment surrounding the rover.”
OnSight will use real rover data and extend the Curiosity mission’s existing planning tools by creating a 3-D simulation of the Martian environment where scientists around the world can meet. Program scientists will be able to examine the rover’s worksite from a first-person perspective, plan new activities and preview the results of their work firsthand.
“We believe OnSight will enhance the ways in which we explore Mars and share that journey of exploration with the world,” said Jeff Norris, JPL’s OnSight project manager.
Until now, rover operations required scientists to examine Mars imagery on a computer screen, and make inferences about what they are seeing. But images, even 3-D stereo views, lack a natural sense of depth that human vision employs to understand spatial relationships.
The OnSight system uses holographic computing to overlay visual information and rover data into the user’s field of view. Holographic computing blends a view of the physical world with computer-generated imagery to create a hybrid of real and virtual.
To view this holographic realm, members of the Curiosity mission team don a Microsoft HoloLens device, which surrounds them with images from the rover’s Martian field site. They then can stroll around the rocky surface or crouch down to examine rocky outcrops from different angles. The tool provides access to scientists and engineers looking to interact with Mars in a more natural, human way.
“Previously, our Mars explorers have been stuck on one side of a computer screen. This tool gives them the ability to explore the rover’s surroundings much as an Earth geologist would do field work here on our planet,” said Norris.
The OnSight tool also will be useful for planning rover operations. For example, scientists can program activities for many of the rover’s science instruments by looking at a target and using gestures to select menu commands.
The joint effort to develop OnSight with Microsoft grew from an ongoing partnership to investigate advances in human-robot interaction. The JPL team responsible for OnSight specializes in systems to control robots and spacecraft. The tool will assist researchers in better understanding the environment and workspace of robotic spacecraft — something that can be quite challenging with their traditional suite of tools.
JPL plans to begin testing OnSight in Curiosity mission operations later this year. Future applications may include Mars 2020 rover mission operations, and other applications in support of NASA’s journey to Mars.
JPL manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, and built the project’s Curiosity rover.
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