Tag: Space Technology

NASA: Six Facts About Recovering The Mars Opportunity Rover

NASA’s Opportunity rover has been silent since June 10, when a planet-encircling dust storm cut off solar power for the nearly-15-year-old rover. Now that scientists think the global dust storm is “decaying” — meaning more dust is falling out of the atmosphere than is being raised back into it — skies might soon clear enough for the solar-powered rover to recharge and attempt to “phone home.”

No one will know how the rover is doing until it speaks. But the team notes there’s reason to be optimistic: They’ve performed several studies on the state of its batteries before the storm, and temperatures at its location. Because the batteries were in relatively good health before the storm, there’s not likely to be too much degradation. And because dust storms tend to warm the environment — and the 2018 storm happened as Opportunity’s location on Mars entered summer — the rover should have stayed warm enough to survive.

What will engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, be looking for — and what will those signs mean for recovery efforts?

A tau below 2

Dust storms on Mars block sunlight from reaching the surface, raising the level of a measurement called “tau.” The higher the tau, the less sunlight is available; the last tau measured by Opportunity was 10.8 on June 10. To compare, an average tau for its location on Mars is usually 0.5.

JPL engineers predict that Opportunity will need a tau of less than 2.0 before the solar-powered rover will be able to recharge its batteries. A wide-angle camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will watch for surface features to become visible as the skies clear. That will help scientists estimate the tau.

Updates on the dust storm and tau can be found here.

Two Ways to Listen for Opportunity

Several times a week, engineers use NASA’s Deep Space Network, which communicates between planetary probes and Earth, to attempt to talk with Opportunity. The massive DSN antennas ping the rover during scheduled “wake-up” times, and then search for signals sent from Opportunity in response.

In addition, JPL’s radio science group uses special equipment on DSN antennas that can detect a wider range of frequencies. Each day, they record any radio signal from Mars over most of the rover’s daylight hours, then search the recordings for Opportunity’s “voice.”

Rover faults out

When Opportunity experiences a problem, it can go into so-called “fault modes” where it automatically takes action to maintain its health. Engineers are preparing for three key fault modes if they do hear back from Opportunity.

  • Low-power fault: engineers assume the rover went into low-power fault shortly after it stopped communicating on June 10. This mode causes the rover to hibernate, assuming that it will wake up at a time when there’s more sunlight to let it recharge.
  • Clock fault: critical to operating while in hibernation is the rover’s onboard clock. If the rover doesn’t know what time it is, it doesn’t know when it should be attempting to communicate. The rover can use environmental clues, like an increase in sunlight, to make assumptions about the time.
  • Uploss fault: when the rover hasn’t heard from Earth in a long time, it can go into “uploss” fault — a warning that its communication equipment may not be functioning. When it experiences this, it begins to check the equipment and tries different ways to communicate with Earth.

What happens if they hear back?

After the first time engineers hear from Opportunity, there could be a lag of several weeks before a second time. It’s like a patient coming out of a coma: It takes time to fully recover. It may take several communication sessions before engineers have enough information to take action.

The first thing to do is learn more about the state of the rover. Opportunity’s team will ask for a history of the rover’s battery and solar cells and take its temperature. If the clock lost track of time, it will be reset. The rover would take pictures of itself to see whether dust might be caked on sensitive parts, and test actuators to see if dust slipped inside, affecting its joints.

Once they’ve gathered all this data, the team would take a poll about whether they’re ready to attempt a full recovery.

Not out of the woods

Even if engineers hear back from Opportunity, there’s a real possibility the rover won’t be the same.

The rover’s batteries could have discharged so much power — and stayed inactive so long — that their capacity is reduced. If those batteries can’t hold as much charge, it could affect the rover’s continued operations. It could also mean that energy-draining behavior, like running its heaters during winter, could cause the batteries to brown out.

Dust isn’t usually as much of a problem. Previous storms plastered dust on the camera lenses, but most of that was shed off over time. Any remaining dust can be calibrated out.

Send Opportunity a postcard

Do you miss Opportunity as much as the rover’s team? You can write a message sharing your thoughts here.

Read more about Opportunity at:

https://mars.nasa.gov/mer/highlights/

 

Rocket Scientist Arrested By Russian Authorities For Espionage

Russian scientist has been arrested in a probe into allegations staff at a top space research centre have been passing information on the country’s weapons programme to the West, agencies reported Tuesday.

The Roscosmos space organisation confirmed in comments to agencies that 74-year-old Viktor Kudryavtsev from the Central Research Institute of Machine Building near Moscow had been detained.

Award-winning scientist Kudryavtsev insisted he was not guilty of treason, his son said in reported comments.

Roscosmos denied reports a second employee of the research institute had been arrested.

Russia’s FSB security services last week raided the institute on the basis that Western security services had obtained information on secret hypersonic developments by Russian industry.

Sources told the Kommersant newspaper the probe was over “high treason,” with around 10 people suspected of “cooperation with Western secret services.”

The Russian space agency confirmed an investigation was taking place, saying it was looking at events in 2013.

The probe comes after President Vladimir Putin in March boasted in a state-of-the-nation address of new “invincible” weapons under development, including hypersonic missiles.

SpaceX Set To Launch Planet Hunter TESS On Monday

With the crippled Kepler orbital equipment almost out of fuel, NASA is preparing the launch of its newest planet-hunting spacecraft, TESS.

TESS, short for Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, will be carried into space by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket on April 16. With a little help from the moon’s gravity, the satellite will achieve a high Earth orbit, offering the probe wide, unobstructed views of the night sky. The probe will orbit Earth twice for every one lunar orbit.

While TESS’s scientific mission is largely the same as Kepler’s — image transiting exoplanets — the probe will use a different approach. Whereas Kepler focused on small fields of view for long periods of time, TESS will take a wider, more comprehensive view.

“TESS is designed to image almost all of the night sky — using four wide angle cameras — in long vertical strips called sectors,” Natalia Guerrero, MIT scientist and researcher on the TESS mission, told UPI.

TESS scientists have divided the sky into long strips called sectors. Each hemisphere contains 13 sectors, and over the next three years, TESS will survey, sector by sector, the Southern Hemisphere and then the Northern Hemisphere.

During each sector scan, TESS’s four cameras will capture 30-minute exposures. The four images will be stacked on top of each other by the satellite’s computer and transmitted back to Earth.

In addition to organizing the sky into sectors, TESS scientists have identified 200,000 especially bright stars likely to host transiting exoplanets. Each stellar target is highlighted by a so-called postage stamp.

Exposures of each postage stamp will be stacked on top of each other every two minutes and beamed back to Earth. These postage stamp observations are expected to identify planetary systems located much closer to Earth than those found by Kepler.

Data captured by TESS will go through the same image-processing pipeline used for Kepler observations. Basic algorithms will process images and identify the dimming patterns created when exoplanets pass across the face of their host star.

Scientists will review the transit events identified via computer analysis and highlight targets for follow-up observations.

“From the depth of the transit and the frequency light curve, we can back out the size of the planet and distance from its host star,” Guerrero said.

But, like Kepler, TESS is designed to survey the sky, not carry out in-depth investigations. Scientists will rely on other telescopes, both ground and space-based, to observe transiting objects in greater detail. Through follow-up investigations, astronomers will be able to estimate an exoplanet’s mass and the composition of its atmosphere, as well as its habitability.

TESS scientists will focus much of their analysis on the two-minute cadence of images of postage stamped targets, but the satellite’s biggest surprises may be more likely to be revealed by the full frame images. In addition to capturing transits, the full-frame images will record observations of thousands of stars.

“The full frame images will serve as really rich repositories of data,” Guerrero said. “They will be made public and will be a wonderful opportunity for the astronomical community and really any interested parties.”

“We’re very excited about the citizen science efforts that will be inspired by these images,” Guerrero said.

Virgin Galactic Success! First Rocket-powered Unity Space Craft Launches & Returns Crew Safely To Ground

Virgin Galactic successfully launched and landed its Unity spacecraft by rocket power, completing its first powered flight in almost four years.

Richard Branson’s space company shared a photo of the SpaceShipTwo model spacecraft as it blasted into the air above the Mojave Air and Space Port before going supersonic and landing safely.

“VSS Unity completed her first supersonic, rocket-powered flight this morning in Mojave, California. Another great test flight, another step closer to being,” Virgin Galactic wrote on Twitter.

Unity took off at about 8:02 a.m. as it was propelled to an altitude of 46,500 feet by the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft, VMS Eve.

Eve then released Unity from under its wing and the SpaceShipTwo’s pilots Mark Stucky and Dave Mackay brought the spacecraft’s engines to life and propelled it into an 80 degree climb, accelerating to Mach 1.87 during the 30 seconds of rocket burn.

“On rocket shutdown, Unity continued an upwards coast to an apogee of 84,271 feet before readying for the downhill return,” Virgin Galactic said.

Once the spacecraft began to descend, the pilots raised its tail booms to a 60 degree angle from the fuselage into the “feathered” configuration, which was adopted after fatal 2014 VSS Enterprise test flight crash.

At 50,000 feet, the tail-booms were lowered again and the Unity glided toward a safe landing on the runway.

“The flight has generated valuable data on flight, motor and vehicle performance which our engineers will be reviewing,” Virgin Galactic said. “It also marks a key moment for the test flight program, entering now the exciting phase of powered flight and the expansion to full duration rocket burns.”

The newest SpaceShipTwo model was unveiled in February 2016, when the late professor Stephen Hawking gave the ship the name “Unity.”

In the future Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft will take passengers 68 miles above the Earth’s surface for a price of $250,000.

SpaceX Launches Cargo to Space Station Using Recycled Rocket & Spaceship

SpaceX blasted off a load of supplies Monday for the International Space Station aboard a rocket and a cargo ship that have both flown before, marking the second such flight for the California-based company.

“Falcon 9 is on its way,” a SpaceX commentator said as the white rocket surged skyward over Cape Canaveral, Florida at 4:30 pm (2030 GMT).

SpaceX’s Jessica Jensen, director of Dragon mission management, said the booster had previously launched in August 2017, and the Dragon flew to the space station in April 2016.

SpaceX’s first such double-recycle resupply mission for NASA flew to the orbiting outpost in December 2017.

The effort is part of SpaceX’s mission to lower the cost of space flight by re-using costly, multimillion-dollar components that typically have been discarded into the ocean after each launch.

“What is really neat about this is it is becoming the norm,” Jensen said.

Monday’s trip marked SpaceX’s 14th resupply mission for NASA under a $1.6 billion contract that aims to guarantee much-needed supplies and equipment to the astronauts living in orbit.

The capsule is packed with about 5,800 pounds (2,600 kilograms) of food and science experiments, including one to study thunderstorms and another to test drug development in space.

The cargo ship is scheduled to latch onto the space station early Wednesday, and will stay in orbit for about a month before returning to Earth.