As part of its Discovery Program, NASA has selected five unmanned mission concepts that will be refined over the next year, with one or two being chosen for launch in the early 2020s. The submitted proposals would study Venus, near-Earth objects and a variety of asteroids.
Created in 1992, the Discovery Program specialises in low-cost, unmanned exploration missions with highly focused scientific goals. The program has funded and developed 12 missions to date – including MESSENGER, Dawn, Stardust, Deep Impact, Genesis and GRAIL, and is currently completing development of InSight.
For this latest mission selection, each of the investigation teams will receive $3 million to perform concept design studies and analyses. Following a detailed review and evaluation, NASA will make the final choices by September 2016 for continued development leading up to launch. Any selected mission will cost approximately $500 million, not including launch vehicle funding or post-launch operations.
"The selected investigations have the potential to reveal much about the formation of our solar system and its dynamic processes,” said John Grunsfeld – astronaut and associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Dynamic and exciting missions like these hold promise to unravel the mysteries of our solar system and inspire future generations of explorers. It’s an incredible time for science, and NASA is leading the way.”
Proposals for spaceflight concepts were requested back in November 2014. A panel of scientists and engineers reviewed 27 submissions and this week narrowed it down to the remaining five candidates:
Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging (DAVINCI)
DAVINCI would study the chemical composition of Venus' atmosphere during a 63-minute descent. It would answer scientific questions that have been considered high priorities for many years, such as whether volcanoes are active today on the surface of Venus and how the surface interacts with the atmosphere of the planet.
The Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy mission (VERITAS)
VERITAS would produce global topography and imaging of Venus' surface with a spatial resolution of 30m globally, down to as low as 15m for some areas of the planet. It would create the first detailed maps of deformation and global surface composition. These capabilities would be an order of magnitude or better than the earlier Magellan spacecraft (pictured) – revealing definitive information on key geologic processes not possible with Magellan's data.
Psyche would explore the origin of planetary cores by studying the metallic asteroid Psyche, one of the largest bodies in the main belt. This asteroid has a powerful magnetic field. It is likely the result of a violent hit-and-run with another object that stripped off the outer layers of a protoplanet.
Near Earth Object Camera (NEOCam)
NEOCAM would discover ten times more near-Earth objects than all NEOs discovered to date. It would also begin to characterise them.
Lucy would perform the first reconnaissance of the Jupiter Trojan asteroids – objects thought to hold vital clues about the history of the solar system.
NASA has announced evidence, for the first time, supporting the presence of liquid water flowing on Mars today.
New findings from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) spacecraft have provided the strongest evidence yet that liquid water flows intermittently on present-day Mars.
Using an imaging spectrometer on the MRO, researchers detected signatures of hydrated minerals on slopes where mysterious streaks are seen on the Red Planet. These darkish streaks appear to ebb and flow over time. They darken and appear to flow down steep slopes during warm seasons, and then fade in cooler seasons. They appear in several locations on Mars when temperatures rise above –23°C (–9°F), and disappear at colder times.
"Our quest on Mars has been to ‘follow the water,’ in our search for life in the universe, and now we have convincing science that validates what we’ve long suspected," said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "This is a significant development as it appears to confirm that water – albeit briny – is flowing today on the surface of Mars."
These downhill flows, known as recurring slope lineae (RSL), have often been described as possibly related to liquid water. The new findings of hydrated salts on the slopes point to what that relationship may be to these dark features. The hydrated salts would lower the freezing point of a liquid brine – just as salt on roads here on Earth causes ice and snow to melt more rapidly. Scientists say it’s likely a shallow subsurface flow, with enough water wicking to the surface to explain the darkening.
"We found the hydrated salts only when the seasonal features were widest, which suggests that either the dark streaks themselves or a process that forms them is the source of the hydration. In either case, the detection of hydrated salts on these slopes means that water plays a vital role in the formation of these streaks," said Lujendra Ojha, a PhD candidate in Planetary Science at Georgia Institute of Technology, and lead author of a report on these findings published today in Nature Geoscience.
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Liquid water at the surface and subsurface increases the possibility that life could be present: "We know from the study of extremophiles on Earth that life can not only survive, but thrive in conditions that are hyper-arid, very saline or otherwise 'extreme' in comparison to what is habitable to a human," said Dr Joe Michalski, a Mars researcher at the Natural History Museum in London. "On Earth, wherever we find water, we find life. That is why the discovery of water on Mars over the last 20 years is so exciting."
Furthermore, there are implications for human colonists in the future, who may find it easier to form self-sustaining habitats: "It may decrease the cost – and increase the resilience – of human activity on the planet," said co-author Mary-Beth Willhelm, from NASA's Ames Research Center in California. "Looking forward, it is imperative for us to further understand the source of the water for these features, as well as the amount."
The dark streaks pictured here are 0.5 to 5 metres wide and up to 300 metres long. They combine to form extensive fan-like patterns. The discovery of these water flows was made when scientists developed a new technique to analyse chemical maps of the surface. However, only 3% of Mars has so far been covered at resolutions high enough to see these features. The researchers plan to look for more locations where flows may occur. In addition to satellite data, NASA's rovers have been finding a lot more humidity in the air and moisture in the soils than previously thought.
"We're revolutionising our understanding of this planet," said Jim Green, the agency's director of planetary science. "Mars is not the dry, arid planet that we thought of in the past."
"It seems that the more we study Mars, the more we learn how life could be supported and where there are resources to support life in the future," said lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, Michael Meyer.
NASA plans to send humans to Mars in the 2030s and is developing a huge new rocket – the Space Launch System (SLS) – to make this possible.
On 14th July this year, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft performed a close flyby of Pluto, becoming the first spacecraft in history to visit the distant world. At its closest approach, it flew 12,600 km (7,800 mi) above the surface, revealing icy mountains up to 11,000ft (3,300m) high, along with a bright surface feature nicknamed "The Heart".
Since then, New Horizons has continued to explore Pluto and its moons. Because of the vast distance between Pluto and Earth, radio communications take four and a half hours (even at the speed of light) and it's only possible to return a faint signal at 1 or 2 kilobytes per second. It will therefore take until late 2016 to transmit all of the images and data.
The most recent set of images is shown below. This includes the most detailed colour photo yet. A super hi-res version [69MB] is available directly from the NASA website by clicking here. Breathtaking views of the dwarf planet's majestic icy mountains, streams of frozen nitrogen and low-lying hazes are seen in the other images. A map of methane ice confirms striking regional differences in abundance (highlighted in pink).
In addition to Pluto itself, NASA recently released the first clear images of its tiny moon Nix, showing rough edges and a prominent crater with unusual reddish/pink colouring. Also shown here is another moon, Hydra, which rotates chaotically due to the fluctuation of the Pluto-Charon gravitational field, as well as its irregular shape.
Following its close encounter with Pluto, the New Horizons probe will venture even further into the Solar System – exploring the Kuiper Belt and eventually completing its mission in 2022, before heading towards the galactic core.
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The most detailed colour photo yet seen of Pluto.
This near-sunset view shows the rugged icy mountains and flat ice plains extending to Pluto's horizon.
Another view looking back towards the Sun.
'Snakeskin' terrain: rounded and bizarrely textured mountains rise up along Pluto's day-night terminator.
One of the sharpest views yet of Pluto's surface with large plains surrounding two isolated ice mountains.
Maps of methane ice abundance confirm striking regional differences, with stronger methane absorption indicated by the brighter purple colours.
Nix, a tiny moon of Pluto, was previously thought to be smooth and round, but on closer inspection is found to have rougher edges. A single large crater dominates the surface.
Hydra is the outermost moon of Pluto and roughly the same size as Nix. It is primarily composed of water-ice.
NASA's Cassini probe has discovered a global ocean lying beneath the icy crust of Saturn's geologically active moon Enceladus.
A global ocean lies beneath the icy crust of Saturn's geologically active moon Enceladus, according to new research using data from NASA's Cassini mission. Researchers found the magnitude of the moon's very slight wobble, as it orbits Saturn, can only be accounted for if its outer ice shell is not frozen solid to its interior, meaning a global ocean must be present. This finding implies that the fine spray of water vapour, icy particles and simple organic molecules observed coming from fractures near the moon's south pole is being fed by this vast liquid water reservoir. The research is presented in a paper published online in the journal Icarus.
Previous analysis of Cassini data suggested the presence of a lens-shaped body of water, or sea, underlying the moon's south polar region. However, gravity data collected during the spacecraft's several close passes over the southern polar region lent support to the possibility the sea might be global. These new results – derived using an independent line of evidence based on Cassini's images – confirm this to be the case.
"This was a hard problem that required years of observations, and calculations involving a diverse collection of disciplines, but we are confident we finally got it right," said Peter Thomas, a Cassini imaging team member at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, and lead author of the paper.
Cassini scientists analysed more than seven years' worth of images of Enceladus taken by the spacecraft, which has been orbiting the gas giant Saturn since mid-2004. They carefully mapped the positions of features on Enceladus – mostly craters – across hundreds of images, in order to measure changes in the moon's rotation with extreme precision.
As a result, they found Enceladus has a tiny, but measurable wobble as it orbits Saturn. Because the icy moon is not perfectly spherical – and because it goes slightly faster and slower during different portions of its orbit around Saturn – the giant planet subtly rocks Enceladus back and forth as it rotates. The team plugged their measurement of the wobble, called a "libration", into different models for how Enceladus might be arranged on the inside, including ones in which the moon was frozen from surface to core.
"If the surface and core were rigidly connected, the core would provide so much dead weight the wobble would be far smaller than we observe it to be," said Matthew Tiscareno, a Cassini participating scientist at the SETI Institute, Mountain View, California, and a co-author of the paper. "This proves that there must be a global layer of liquid separating the surface from the core."
The mechanisms that might have prevented Enceladus' ocean from freezing remain a mystery. Thomas and colleagues suggest ideas for future study that might help resolve the question, including the surprising possibility that tidal forces due to Saturn's gravity could be generating much more heat within the moon than previously thought.
Enceladus visible just above the rings of Saturn. Credit: NASA.
"This is a major step beyond what we understood about this moon before, and it demonstrates the kind of deep-dive discoveries we can make with long-lived orbiter missions to other planets," said co-author Carolyn Porco, Cassini imaging team lead at the Space Science Institute, Colorado. "Cassini has been exemplary in this regard."
The unfolding story of Enceladus has been one of the great triumphs of Cassini's long mission at Saturn. Scientists first detected signs of the moon's icy plume in early 2005, and followed up with a series of discoveries about the material gushing from warm fractures near its south pole. They announced strong evidence for a regional sea in 2014, and more recently, in 2015, they shared results that suggest hydrothermal activity is taking place on the ocean floor.
Cassini is scheduled for a close flyby of Enceladus on 28th October, in the mission's deepest-ever dive through the moon's active plume of icy material. The probe will pass a mere 30 miles (49 km) above the moon's surface. The mission is expected to end in 2017, when the spacecraft is crashed into the upper atmosphere of Saturn.
Future missions to Enceladus may include landers able to explore the surface and even drill into it. NASA is currently developing a massive new rocket known as the Space Launch System (SLS), including a 130-ton payload version due for operation in the 2030s. This rocket will greatly improve the capability of missions to the outer Solar System.
In 2012, a NASA presentation – SLS Concept Of Operations (Con Ops) – outlined some possible long-term options for the SLS, including ambitious missions to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn: "The SLS [...] would have the payload capacity to provide shielding for a lander on [a moon's] surface, and sufficient fuel for propulsive maneuvers out of the gravitational well," the report said. "At Enceladus, a small active moon of Saturn, the SLS could carry the fuel needed to slow down for sample capture from the plumes on Enceladus, or create an artificial plume on either Europa or Enceladus by firing a copper projectile at the surface."
Ultimately, robotic probes will be able to explore right the way down into the subsurface liquid oceans, though such missions are several decades away. In the more distant future, perhaps Enceladus will function as a resource extraction site for human colonists.
A year-long experiment to simulate a Mars colony has begun in a remote part of Hawaii.
Credit: HI-SEAS / NASA / University of Hawaii
Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) is a collaboration between the University of Hawaii and NASA. The experiment, which began on Friday 28th August, is located in an isolated position on the slopes of the Mauna Loa volcano on the island of Hawaii. This area has Mars-like features and an elevation of 2,500m (8,200ft) above sea level. Six people will spend 365 days inside a small dome, only 36ft (11m) in diameter and 20ft (6m) tall, eating a diet that consists of traditional space food (such as freeze-dried items). They will only be allowed to venture outside if they wear a spacesuit and will be monitored using cameras, body movement trackers, electronic surveys and other methods. The team comprises three men and three women – a French astrobiologist, German physicist and four Americans including an architect, journalist, pilot and soil scientist.
HI-SEAS is funded by the NASA Human Research Program. Its purpose is to determine what is required to keep a space crew happy and healthy during an extended mission to Mars and while living on the surface of Mars. Research into food, crew dynamics, behaviours, roles, performance and other aspects of space flight and a mission on Mars itself are the primary focus. The HI-SEAS team will also conduct a variety of other science research as part of their daily activities.
Credit: Zak Wilson / HI-SEAS
NASA has a long-term goal of sending humans to Mars, with the 2030s being the most likely timeframe in which this happens. Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk also wants to establish permanent settlements on the Red Planet. There have been three previous HI-SEAS experiments. This fourth test will be the longest so far (the last one ended after eight months) and will offer an interesting glimpse into the possible future of human space exploration.
"The longer each mission becomes, the better we can understand the risks of space travel," says Kim Binsted, principal investigator and University of Hawaii professor from the Department of Information and Computer Sciences. "We hope that this mission will build on our current understanding of the social and psychological factors involved in long duration space exploration and give NASA solid data on how best to select and support a flight crew that will work cohesively as a team while in space."
Below is a recent interview with Sheyna Gifford, who will serve as the Health Science Officer and Habitat Journalist. For more information, visit the official website at hi-seas.org. You can also follow their progress at LiveFromMars.life and on Twitter @ HI_SEAS.
Astrophysicists have shown that if life can travel between the stars (a process called panspermia), it would spread in a characteristic pattern that we could potentially identify.
We only have one example of a planet with life: Earth. But within the next generation, it should become possible to detect signs of life on planets orbiting distant stars. If we find alien life, new questions will arise. For example, did that life arise spontaneously? Or could it have spread from elsewhere? If life crossed the vast gulf of interstellar space long ago, how would we tell?
New research by Harvard astrophysicists shows that if life can travel between the stars (a process called panspermia), it would spread in a characteristic pattern that we could potentially identify.
"In our theory, clusters of life form, grow, and overlap like bubbles in a pot of boiling water," says lead author Henry Lin of the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics (CfA).
There are two basic ways for life to spread beyond its host star. The first would be via natural processes such as gravitational slingshotting of asteroids or comets. The second would be for intelligent life to deliberately travel outward. The paper does not deal with how panspermia occurs. It simply asks: if it does occur, could we detect it? In principle, the answer is yes.
Their model assumes that seeds from one living planet spread outward in all directions. If a seed reaches a habitable planet orbiting a neighbouring star, it can take root. Over time, the result of this process would be a series of life-bearing oases dotting the galactic landscape.
"Life could spread from host star to host star in a pattern similar to the outbreak of an epidemic. In a sense, the Milky Way galaxy would become infected with pockets of life," explains CfA co-author Avi Loeb.
If we detect signs of life in the atmospheres of alien worlds, the next step will be to look for a pattern. For example, in an ideal case where the Earth is on the edge of a "bubble" of life, all the nearby life-hosting worlds we find will be in one half of the sky, while the other half will be barren. Lin and Loeb caution that a pattern will only be discernible if life spreads somewhat rapidly. Since stars in the Milky Way drift relative to each other, stars that are neighbours now won't be neighbours in a few million years. In other words, stellar drift would smear out the bubbles.
By measuring the energy output from a large portion of the Universe with greater precision than ever before, astronomers have determined that the Universe is gradually fading across all wavelengths. In effect, the Universe is slowly dying.
Credit: ICRAR/GAMA and ESO
An international team of astronomers studying more than 200 000 galaxies has measured the energy generated within a large portion of space more precisely than ever before. This represents the most comprehensive assessment of the energy output of the nearby Universe. They confirm that the energy produced in a section of the Universe today is only about half what it was two billion years ago and find that this fading is occurring across all wavelengths from the ultraviolet to the far infrared. The Universe is slowly dying.
The study involves many of the world's most powerful telescopes, including the European Southern Observatory's VISTA and VST survey telescopes at the Paranal Observatory in Chile. Supporting observations were made by two orbiting space telescopes operated by NASA (GALEX and WISE) and another belonging to the European Space Agency (Herschel). The research is part of the Galaxy And Mass Assembly (GAMA) project, the largest multi-wavelength survey ever put together.
"We used as many space and ground-based telescopes as we could get our hands on to measure the energy output of over 200 000 galaxies across as broad a wavelength range as possible," says Simon Driver, who heads the large GAMA team.
The survey data, released to astronomers this week, includes measurements of the energy output of each galaxy at 21 wavelengths, from the ultraviolet to the far infrared. This dataset will help scientists to better understand how different types of galaxies form and evolve.
All of the energy in the Universe was created in the Big Bang, with some portion locked up as mass. Stars shine by converting mass back into energy as described by Einstein's famous equation E=mc2. The GAMA study sets out to map and model all of the energy generated within a large volume of space today and at different times in the past.
"While most of the energy sloshing around in the Universe arose in the aftermath of the Big Bang, additional energy is constantly being generated by stars as they fuse elements like hydrogen and helium together," says Driver. "This new energy is either absorbed by dust as it travels through the host galaxy or escapes into intergalactic space and travels until it hits something – such as another star, a planet, or, very occasionally, a telescope mirror."
The fact that the Universe is slowly fading has been known since the late 1990s, but this work shows that it is happening across all wavelengths from the ultraviolet to the infrared, representing the most comprehensive assessment of the energy output of the nearby Universe.
"The Universe will decline from here on in, sliding gently into old age. The Universe has basically sat down on the sofa, pulled up a blanket and is about to nod off for an eternal doze," concludes Driver.
The team of researchers hope to expand their work to map energy production over the entire history of the Universe – using a swathe of new facilities, including the world's largest radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array, which is due to become operational in 2024.
The team presented their findings at the International Astronomical Union XXIX General Assembly in Honolulu, Hawaii, on Monday 10th August.
NASA has announced the discovery of Kepler-452b, an exoplanet that is near-Earth-size and orbiting the habitable zone of a Sun-like star.
This artist's impression compares Earth (left) to the new planet, Kepler-452b, which is about 60 percent larger in diameter (right). Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle
NASA's Kepler mission has confirmed the first near-Earth-size planet in the “habitable zone” around a sun-like star. This discovery and the introduction of 11 other new small habitable zone candidate planets mark another milestone on the journey to finding “Earth 2.0.”
The newly discovered Kepler-452b is the smallest planet to date found inside the habitable zone of a G-type star, like our sun. Today's confirmation of Kepler-452b brings the total number of confirmed exoplanets to 1,030.
“On the 20th anniversary year of the discovery that proved other suns host planets, the Kepler exoplanet explorer has discovered a planet and star which most closely resemble the Earth and our Sun,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “This exciting result brings us one step closer to finding an Earth 2.0.”
Kepler-452b is 60 percent larger in diameter than Earth and is considered a super-Earth-size planet. While its mass and composition are not yet determined, previous research suggests that planets of this size have a good chance of being rocky.
While Kepler-452b is somewhat larger than Earth, its orbit is remarkably similar, being only 5 percent longer at 385 days. The planet is just 5 percent farther from its parent star than Earth is from our Sun. The star Kepler-452 has the same temperature as our own sun, is around 20 percent brighter and with a diameter 10 percent larger. Its age is estimated at 6 billion years, which is 1.5 billion years older than our sun.
“We can think of Kepler-452b as an older, bigger cousin to Earth, providing an opportunity to understand and reflect upon Earth’s evolving environment,” said Jon Jenkins, data analysis lead at NASA's Ames Research Centre, California. “It’s awe-inspiring to consider that this planet has spent 6 billion years in the habitable zone of its star; longer than Earth. That’s substantial opportunity for life to arise, should all the necessary ingredients and conditions for life exist on this planet.”
In addition to confirming Kepler-452b, the team has increased the number of new exoplanet candidates by 521 from their analysis of observations conducted from May 2009 to May 2013, raising the number of planet candidates detected by the Kepler mission to 4,696. Candidates require follow-up observations and analysis to verify they are actual planets.
Twelve of the new planet candidates have diameters between one to two times that of Earth, and orbit in their star's habitable zone. Of these, nine orbit stars that are similar to our sun in size and temperature.
“We've been able to fully automate our process of identifying planet candidates, which means we can finally assess every transit signal in the entire Kepler dataset quickly and uniformly,” said Jeff Coughlin, Kepler scientist at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, who led the analysis of a new candidate catalogue. “This gives astronomers a statistically sound population of planet candidates to accurately determine the number of small, possibly rocky planets like Earth in our Milky Way galaxy.”
The Kepler-452 system is located 1,400 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus. At the speed of New Horizons, it would take about 25.8 million years to reach there. A research paper reporting NASA's findings has been accepted for publication in The Astronomical Journal.
Through private and international partnerships, the cost of colonising other worlds could be reduced by 90 percent, according to a joint study released by the National Space Society and the Space Frontier Foundation and reviewed by an independent team of NASA experts.
“The Space Frontier Foundation supports and recommends public-private partnerships in all proposed human spaceflight programs in order to reduce costs and enable these missions that were previously unaffordable,” said the Space Frontier Foundation’s Chairman of the Board, Jeff Feige. “This is the way that America will settle the final frontier, save taxpayers money and usher in a new era of economic growth and STEM innovation.”
NSS and SFF call attention to these conclusions from the study:
• Through public-private partnerships, NASA could return humans to the surface of the Moon and develop a permanent lunar base with its current human spaceflight budget.
• Mining fuel from lunar poles and transporting it to lunar orbit for use by other spacecraft reduces the cost of sending humans to Mars and other locations beyond low Earth orbit. These commercial fuel depots in lunar orbit have the potential to cut the cost of sending humans to Mars by more than $10 billion per year.
“NSS congratulates NASA for funding the team at NexGen that discovered how such cost reductions are possible,” said Mark Hopkins, the NSS Executive Committee Chair. “A factor of ten reduction in cost changes everything.”
Recent contracts with Boeing and SpaceX are just one example of how partnerships can work and may help with more ambitious projects in the future. The latter spent only $440 million developing its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon crew capsule, where NASA would have spent $4 billion. SpaceX has also been developing a reusable rocket that aims to dramatically cut launch costs. Extracting and refining resources on the Moon, rather than having them delivered up from Earth to the lunar surface, could save a great deal of money too. There are many other examples of cost-saving measures. Click here to read the executive summary and here to download the full report.
Planetary Resources, Inc., the asteroid mining company, announced today that its Arkyd 3 Reflight (A3R) spacecraft was deployed successfully from the International Space Station's (ISS) Kibo airlock and has begun its 90-day mission.
The A3R demonstration vehicle will validate several core technologies including the avionics, control systems and software, which the company will incorporate into future spacecraft that will venture into the Solar System and prospect for resource-rich, near-Earth asteroids.
The A3R was launched to the ISS onboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in April as part of the CRS-6 crew resupply mission. "Our philosophy is to test often, and if possible, to test in space. The A3R is the most sophisticated, yet cost-effective, test demonstration spacecraft ever built. We are innovating on every level from design to launch," said Chris Lewicki, president and chief engineer, Planetary Resources, Inc. "By vertically integrating the system at our facility in Redmond, we are in constant control of every component, including the ones we purchase off the shelf and the others that we manufacture using 3D printers."
Peter H. Diamandis, M.D., co-founder and co-chairman, Planetary Resources, Inc., stated, "The successful deployment of the A3R is a significant milestone for Planetary Resources as we forge a path toward prospecting resource-rich asteroids. Our team is developing the technology that will enable humanity to create an off-planet economy that will fundamentally change the way we live on Earth."
Once the A3R completes its mission, the validated and evolved technologies will be the main components of the Arkyd series of deep-space asteroid-prospecting spacecraft. The next demonstrator, the Arkyd-6 (pictured below), will be launched later this year and will test the attitude control, power, communication and avionics systems.
Planetary Resources is leveraging the increased payload capacity of the A6 to begin demonstration of core technology to measure resources on water-rich asteroids. Included in the payload is a mid-wave infrared imaging system, able to precisely measure temperature differences of the objects it observes, as well as acquire key data related to the presence of water and water-bearing minerals. The system will first test targeted areas of our own planet before being deployed to near-Earth asteroids on future missions.
Eric Anderson, co-founder and co-chairman, Planetary Resources, Inc., said, "This key technology for determining resources on asteroids can also be applied towards monitoring and managing high-value resources on our home planet. All of our work at Planetary Resources is laying the foundation to better manage and increase humanity's access to natural resources on our planet and in our Solar System."
In related news, the SPACE Act of 2015 was recently passed in the House of Representatives. As Peter explains in the video below, this recognises the rights of U.S. asteroid mining companies to declare mined asteroid resources as property and creates a process for resolving disputes. The Senate is currently reviewing a duplicate version of the House language, S. 976.
Astronomers report the discovery of a new type of planet, resembling a giant comet.
Artist's impression. Credit: University of Geneva (UNIGE)
Astronomers using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope have discovered an immense cloud of hydrogen – dubbed "The Behemoth" – which is trailing away from a planet orbiting a nearby red dwarf. This huge, comet-like feature is about 50 times the size of the star.
Located 33 light years away, Gliese 436 b is a "warm Neptune" circling just 3 million miles (4.8 million km) from its host, or about 13 times smaller than the distance between Mercury and our Sun. It takes only two days and 15.5 hours to complete one orbit. This close proximity and the extreme radiation from the parent star have been gradually stripping away the atmosphere of Gliese 436 b. It is currently losing about 1,000 tons of gas per second.
"This cloud is very spectacular, though the evaporation rate does not threaten the planet right now," explains the study's leader, David Ehrenreich from the University of Geneva in Switzerland. "But we know that in the past, the star, which is a faint red dwarf, was more active. This means that the planet evaporated faster during its first billion years of existence. Overall, we estimate that it may have lost up to 10 percent of its atmosphere."
The cloud of hydrogen forms a circular head surrounding Gliese 436 b, measuring about 1.8 million miles (3 million km) in diameter. The tail behind it stretches up to 9.3 million miles (15 million km) in length, based on the researchers' computer models.
This comet-like planet is the first of its kind to ever be recorded. This type of observation is very promising in the search for habitable planets since "hydrogen from the ocean water that evaporates on slightly hotter terrestrial planets than the Earth could be detected," as Vincent Bourrier suggests, co-author of these results.
Its discovery could also help scientists to envisage the distant future of our own planet, billions of years from now, when the Sun becomes a red giant and expands to engulf our atmosphere. It is hypothesised that the Earth would be turned into a giant comet, just like Gliese 436 b. The James Webb Space Telescope, due for launch in 2018, could provide more accurate data and fresh insights into this system.
The study was published yesterday in the journal Nature.
The New Horizons probe is now just 36 days away from its historic encounter with Pluto. Based on the little visual information gleaned so far, NASA has released these new artist's renderings of the dwarf planet and its moons. The mission team is currently looking for any indications of dust or debris that might threaten the spacecraft's flight through the Pluto system on 14th July. At such high speed, even a particle as small as a grain of rice could be fatal. They expect to complete a thorough analysis of the data and report on its results by Friday this week. No rings, new moons, or other potential hazards have been detected so far; but if any dangers are found, the team has until 4th July to divert the probe to one of three alternate routes.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has reaffirmed its commitment to sending a probe to Mars in 2021. More details have emerged of the planned mission, which is timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the UAE's formation. In this new video, from the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC), scientists explain how the 1,500 kilogram Hope (or "al-Amal" in Arabic) spacecraft will study the Martian atmosphere and climate.
If successful, not only will it become the first Arabian mission to Mars, it will also create the first planet-wide picture of how the Martian atmosphere changes throughout the day and between seasons. This could improve our understanding of how aerosols, ozone, water ice, water vapour and other physical processes affect us here on Earth, while also being useful in planning future manned colonies. The resulting data will be shared freely with over 200 institutions worldwide. More information is available on the MBRSC website, which includes an image gallery.
Reaction Engines Ltd. – a British aerospace company – has announced that analysis undertaken by the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) has confirmed the feasibility of the Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine ('SABRE') concept.
Through its ability to "breathe" air from the atmosphere, SABRE could offer a significant reduction in propellant consumption compared to conventional rocket engines that have to carry their own oxygen, which is heavy. The weight saved by carrying less oxygen could improve launch vehicle capabilities, by greatly increasing their operational flexibility and efficiency, while lowering costs by an order of magnitude. Space tourism would become far cheaper and safer. Additionally, the SABRE concept could potentially be configured to efficiently power aircraft flying at high supersonic and hypersonic speeds.
New analysis by the US AFRL, as part of a joint research collaboration agreement, examined the thermodynamic cycle of the SABRE concept. They found no significant barrier to its theoretical viability, provided the engine component and integration challenges are met. Reaction Engines Ltd. and AFRL are now formulating plans for continued collaboration on the SABRE engine. The proposed work will include investigation of vehicle concepts based on a SABRE-derived propulsion system.
The next phase will also include physical testing of SABRE engine components, alongside exploration of the defence applications for Reaction Engines' heat exchanger technologies.
Sam Hutchison, Director of Corporate Development at Reaction Engines, commented as follows: “The confirmation by AFRL of the feasibility of the SABRE engine cycle has further validated our team’s own assessment and conviction that the SABRE engine represents a potential breakthrough in propulsion that could lead to game changing space access and high speed flight capability. We look forward to continued collaboration with AFRL”.
If all goes to plan, the first test flights of Skylon – a single-stage-to-orbit spaceplane using the SABRE engine – could occur within five years, with visits to the International Space Station during the early 2020s.