NASA's Mars helicopter almost ready for take off

The new Mars rover Perseverance, set to launch in July for a February 2021 landing, will be outfitted with its own small helicopter. NASA engineers at Kennedy Space Station recently put the chopper through its paces, marking the last time they'll spin it up before landing on the red planet. From Kennedy Space Center:

The functional test (50 RPM spin) was executed on the stand in the airlock. This marked the last time the rotor blades will be operated until the rover reaches the Martian surface.

The NASA Mars Helicopter will be the first aircraft to fly on another planet. The twin-rotor, solar-powered helicopter will remain encapsulated after landing, deploying once mission managers determine an acceptable area to conduct test flights.

And from NASA:

The Mars Helicopter is considered a high-risk, high-reward technology demonstration. If the small craft encounters difficulties, the science-gathering of the Mars 2020 mission won't be impacted. If the helicopter does take flight as designed, future Mars missions could enlist second-generation helicopters to add an aerial dimension to their explorations.

"Our job is to prove that autonomous, controlled flight can be executed in the extremely thin Martian atmosphere," said JPL's MiMi Aung, the Mars Helicopter project manager. "Since our helicopter is designed as a flight test of experimental technology, it carries no science instruments. But if we prove powered flight on Mars can work, we look forward to the day when Mars helicopters can play an important role in future explorations of the Red Planet."

Along with investigating difficult-to-reach destinations such as cliffs, caves and deep craters, they could carry small science instruments or act as scouts for human and robotic explorers.

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"Old gas blob from Uranus found in vintage Voyager 2 data"

Yes, that is actually Space.com's brilliant headline on this story about a new discovery from data collected in 1986 by NASA's intrepid spacecraft. When the probe neared Uranus (heh heh), it measured the planet's surrounding magnetic field. Recently, NASA scientists Gina DiBraccio and Daniel Gershman analyzing Voyager's old data found a "wobble" in Uranus's magnetosphere indicating a plasmoid, a bubble of plasma traveling away from the planet. From Space.com:

Scientists have studied these structures at Earth and nearby planets, but never at Uranus or its neighbor Neptune, since Voyager 2 is the only spacecraft to date ever to visit those planets.

Scientists want to know about plasmoids because these structures can pull charged particles out of a planet's atmosphere and fling them into space. And if you change a planet's atmosphere, you change the planet itself.

And from the "plain language summary" of their scientific paper published in Geophysical Research Letters:

Uranus possesses an intrinsic magnetic field that encircles the planet and influences the local space environment. The solar wind plasma, made up of charged particles, flows away from the Sun and interacts with Uranus' magnetic field to form what is called a “planetary magnetosphere.” By understanding dynamics of the magnetosphere, we are able to learn how changes in the Sun can impact the planet's space environment but also how magnetic fields and plasma are circulated throughout the system. In this work, we analyze data from the Voyager 2 spacecraft during the Uranus flyby in 1986. The data revealed a helical bundle of magnetic flux containing planetary plasma, known as a “plasmoid,” in the tail of the magnetosphere.

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NASA's stunning image of our galactic center

Last July, NASA released this wonderful composite image of the galactic center of the Milky Way.

The central region of our galaxy, the Milky Way, contains an exotic collection of objects, including a supermassive black hole weighing about 4 million times the mass of the Sun (called Sagittarius A*), clouds of gas at temperatures of millions of degrees, neutron stars and white dwarf stars tearing material from companion stars and beautiful tendrils of radio emission.

The region around Sagittarius A* is shown in this new composite image with Chandra data (green and blue) combined with radio data (red) from the MeerKAT telescope in South Africa, which will eventually become part of the Square Kilometer Array (SKA).

Read more about the Chandra X-ray Observatory and it's 20th anniversary, also celebrated last July.

Image credit: X-Ray:NASA/CXC/UMass/D. Wang et al.; Radio:NRF/SARAO/MeerKAT Read the rest

NASA fixed a Mars probe by hitting it with a shovel

The Mars InSight Lander has a ton of tools for exploring the Red Planet next door, including a 15-inch digging probe (also known as "the mole") meant to burrow into the Martian soil and take measurements.

Unfortunately, the mole got stuck. From Popular Science:

A rock could be in the way, but the more likely culprit appears to be the Martian soil. Previous observations had led the German Aerospace Center engineers who designed the probe to expect that it would be digging through loose sand. They built the mole to bounce up and down like a jackhammer, sinking with each stroke and threading its way around any modestly sized rocks it encountered. But the probe has found soil that seems more dirt-like than sand-like; It sticks together and doesn’t collapse around the mole to give it enough friction to dig. What the mole needs is a little nudge.

So what did they do to get the mole unstuck? They used the shovel-like scoop at the end of one of the InSight Lander's robot arms to pin down the mole. "The move is risky," Popular Science explained, "because a delicate tether that provides power and communications from the lander attaches to the back part of the mole, and a hard whack could damage it."

Fortunately, it worked.

Who knew that the "Why are you hitting yourself?" game would be such a useful tool for space exploration?

At long last, NASA’s probe finally digs in on Mars [Charlie Wood / Popular Science]

NASA fixes Mars lander by telling it to hit itself with a shovel [Dan Robitzski / Futurism]

Mars InSight Lander to push on top of mole [NASA]

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NASA: No, that UFO plainly seen in our space observatory footage isn't a UFO

NASA's STEREO (Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory) research platform consists of two orbiting spacecraft that collect stereoscopic data about the sun and the eruptions of magnetized plasma during coronal mass ejections (CMEs). Last month, UFO buffs spotted a strange object in data acquired by STEREO, specifically what appears to be a wheel-shaped UFO. The footage made the rounds online (example above) spurring NASA to explain the anomaly. Turns out, it's... Venus. Bummer. From NASA:

Some people have noticed an odd shape, sort of a cross inside a circle, entering the field-of-view of the HI2 telescope on STEREO Ahead around February 20,2020. Eventually there is a cone shape that appears next to it. You can see the feature in question in this movie moving from right-to-left, just below the trapezoidal occulter on the right side of the image. The answer lies on the exact opposite side of the image. At the same time as this strange-looking feature starts being visible, the very bright planet Venus enters the HI2-A field-of-view from the left. Notice that Venus and the feature stay in step almost exactly opposite each other across the middle of the detector. This is not a coincidence. The strange looking geometrical "object" is actually an internal reflection of the planet Venus within the telescope optics. This effect has been seen many times before. Here's a particularly striking example of internal reflections caused by the planet Earth as seen early in the STEREO mission, taken from our image artifacts pages.

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Quarantine survival advice from Buzz Aldrin and other astronauts

I had the privilege of interviewing Buzz Aldrin a few years ago. The second man to step foot on the moon (and first to pee on it) had just released a new book, and won his first ever March Madness bracket, and the first thing he told me over the phone was how he'd spent his 80th birthday scuba diving in the Galapagos with his son, but got in trouble when he broke away from the group and grabbed a whale shark by the dorsal fin just so he could ride it.

Buzz Aldrin is a god damn national treasure and a real American badass. (I'd also love to see the look on that scuba instructor's face if/when they realized that the old man they were scolding was in fact Buzz Aldrin.)

Now, Aldrin is 90 years old, which puts him at particularly high risk for infection by the novel coronavirus. But this national treasure has a solid plan to stay safe, as detailed to Eric Berger at Ars Technica: "Lying on my ass and locking the door."

Aldrin is a survivor — of outer space, of shitty jobs, and of alcoholism and depression — so I tend to trust his advice. But if you're looking for something more substantial, Forbes spoke with several other astronauts about their time in isolation, including NASA’s Human Research Program Director Bill Paloski, Ph.D.; John Grunsfeld PhD, a retired NASA astronaut and Hubble Space Telescope repairman who spent over 59 days in space; and Dr. Read the rest

Show your kids! Astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor reads inspiring children's book from space!

Astronaut and physician Serena Auñón-Chancellor spent almost 200 days aboard the International Space Station. Here she is in orbit reading the wonderful book Ada Twist Scientist by Andrea Beaty.

(Story Time From Space) Read the rest

Interviewing astronaut Don Pettit on the pioneering science being conducted on the ISS

In January, I covered the new season of NASA Explorers. This season (their fourth) focuses on space science and microgravity. In concert with the latest episode (inlined below), the NASA Explorers team posted, exclusively to their Facebook page, a behind-the-scenes interview with astronaut and space scientist, Don Pettit.

Standing in a standard Earth gravity mock-up of the Destiny lab aboard the station, Pettit and NASA Explorers' Rachel Barry talk about the explorations of the past, present, and the future. There are some interesting moments here, like how long-term oceanic voyages of the past also taught us about the human body under such stressful conditions and how to better prepare it for future voyages. Understanding the blight of scurvy during such voyages opened up our whole understanding of vitamins and diet.

Don also talks about future generations being born and growing up in space, in microgravity, and thus having a completely different perception of spatial relationships and how this might even change the way they think and solve problems.

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Apollo 15 astronaut Al Worden, who circled moon, dies at 88

Twenty-four human beings have traveled from Earth to the moon. Fewer than half of them remain.

Astronaut Al Worden, who flew to the moon in 1971 as a member of the Apollo 15 crew, has died. The retired astronaut was 88.

Worden circled the moon alone on that mission, while his two crewmates test-drove the first lunar rover. Read the rest

NASA won't be able to talk to Voyager 2 for the next year

For the next year or so, the NASA Deep Space Network's 70-meter-wide (230-feet-wide) radio antenna in Canberra, Australia will have limited functionality is it undergoes critical upgrades. As a result, NASA won't be able to transmit commands 12 billion miles into space to the intrepid Voyager 2 space probe that recently recovered quite beautifully from a glitch. Both Voyager 1 and 2, launched in 1977, are currently hurtling through the interstellar space carrying scientific instruments and a Golden Record ready to be played by any extraterrestrials who might encounter the probes over the next few billion years. From NASA:

The repairs will benefit far more than Voyager 2, including future missions like the Mars 2020 rover and Moon to Mars exploration efforts. The network will play a critical role in ensuring communication and navigation support for both the precursor Moon and Mars missions and the crewed Artemis missions. "The maintenance is needed to support the missions that NASA is developing and launching in the future, as well as supporting the missions that are operating right now," said Suzanne Dodd, Voyager project manager and JPL Director for the Interplanetary Network.

The three Canberra 34-meter (111-foot) antennas can be configured to listen to Voyager 2's signal; they just won't be able to transmit commands. In the meantime, said Dodd, the Voyager team will put the spacecraft into a quiescent state, which will still allow it to send back science data during the 11-month downtime.

"We put the spacecraft back into a state where it will be just fine, assuming that everything goes normally with it during the time that the antenna is down," said Dodd.

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Explainer video about the digital computer onboard Apollo 11

In the late 1960 NASA engineers were tasked with developing a digital flight computer that took up just one cubic foot of  space on the Apollo 11 capsule and the software to guide the crew to the Moon. This TED-Ed video explains how it was done.

From YouTube:

The Apollo 11 moon landing was about the astronauts, mission control, software and hardware all working together as a seamless integrated system. None of which would have been possible without the contributions of one engineer: Margaret Hamilton. Who was this pioneer? Matt Porter and Margaret Hamilton detail how a woman and her team launched the software that took mankind to the Moon.

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NASA's spectacular new 1.8 billion pixel panorama photo from Mars

Between November 24 and December 1, 2020, NASA's Curiosity rover captured the above image on the surface of Mars. The image contains nearly 1.8 billion pixels composed of more than 1,000 images. From NASA:

The rover's Mast Camera, or Mastcam, used its telephoto lens to produce the panorama and relied on its medium-angle lens to produce a lower-resolution panorama that includes the rover's deck and robotic arm.

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Space cookies and the future of pizza pockets beyond Earth

Last month, the first cookies baked in space returned to Earth. This test of a new oven designed for microgravity aboard the International Space Station was not only a delightful experiment but also an important one. After all, this was the first time astronauts cooked raw ingredients in space. And yes, the ISS did smell of fresh-baked cookies. From Space.com's interview with NASA astronaut Mike Massimino who consulted on the experiment back on Earth:

Further investigation and analysis of the experiment's results will also continue to answer questions, such as why the cookies took much longer to bake in space and why they weren't "poofy...."

"This is a big step in that direction for the future of exploration where we're gonna be off the planet for longer periods of time," Massimino said. He continued, adding that within the very near future we may be starting to build settlements on off-Earth location like the moon, and we will need to use specialized tech to ensure that the humans living off-Earth have access to good, nutritious (and delicious) food.

As far as what might be next for baking or cooking in space, Massimino had a couple of suggestions.

So what does Massimino want to see next? "The next thing would definitely be a pizza of some sort," he said. "Bagel bites or hot pockets of some sort." He added that it would also be nice for astronauts to have something they could "bite into … something big like a big cheeseburger or a big sandwich."

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Katherine Johnson, pioneering NASA mathematician portrayed in "Hidden Figures," RIP

The great Katherine Johnson, one of the legendary African-American mathematicians who were essential to the Apollo 11 moon landing, has died at age 101. You'll recall that Johnson, who worked at NASA’s Flight Research Division for more than three decades, was the central character in the film Hidden Figures. From the New York Times:

Mrs. Johnson was one of several hundred rigorously educated, supremely capable yet largely unheralded women who, well before the modern feminist movement, worked as NASA mathematicians.

But it was not only her sex that kept her long marginalized and long unsung: Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson, a West Virginia native who began her scientific career in the age of Jim Crow, was also African-American.

In old age, Mrs. Johnson became the most celebrated of the small cadre of black women — perhaps three dozen — who at midcentury served as mathematicians for the space agency and its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.

In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, proclaiming, “Katherine G. Johnson refused to be limited by society’s expectations of her gender and race while expanding the boundaries of humanity’s reach.”

In 2017, NASA dedicated a building in her honor, the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility, at its Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

More: Katherine Johnson (NASA)

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Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot image is 30 years old today

Thirty years ago today, the Voyager 1 spaceprobe had completed its ncounters with the outer planets and was careening out of our solar system. The time came to shut off the probes' cameras to preserve power and memory for the other onboard scientific instruments. But before engineers flipped the switch, one last photo opportunity was not to be missed. From my liner notes to the Voyager Golden Record vinyl box set:

Astronomer and educator Carl Sagan, a member of the Voyager Imaging Team, had persuaded NASA engineers to turn Voyager 1’s cameras back toward the sun and take the first-ever portrait of our solar system from beyond its outer boundary. Sixty frames, taken on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1990, were combined into a single mosaic, known today as the “Solar System Portrait,” albeit with Mars and Mercury lost in the sun’s glare. Centered in a ray of scattered light in the camera’s optics is a tiny speck, just .12 pixels in size: Earth from 6 billion kilometers away—a “pale blue dot,” as Sagan called it. It’s an iconic image that holds the power to shift our perspective in an instant.

“There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world,” Sagan wrote in Pale Blue Dot (1994). “To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

Please join us in celebrating Carl Sagan's valentine to humanity:

(image: NASA) Read the rest

Fourth season of NASA Explorers premiers, focuses on microgravity and space science

I am excited for the launch of Season 4 of NASA Explorers, put together by the ISS Research Communications team which includes Boing Boing pal Rachel Barry.

The ISS Research Communications team is proud to announce the premiere of the latest season of the NASA Explorers video series. Season four, called “Microgravity,” will take you behind the scenes with a team of scientists as they prepare their research for launch to the International Space Station, and follows them through the epic journey of conducting science in space.

Rachel (a former editor at Craft: magazine and a Make: contributor) is Science Communication Strategist at ISS Research and is the narrator of Season 4. The episodes last around 5-7 minutes (bite-sized space science for modern attention spans) and will be posted to YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. Previous seasons have covered the Cryosphere, Apollo, and Fires.

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First 'baked in space' cookies: 2 hours at 325º in zero-g oven

SPOILER: Nobody got baked. Not that kind of space cookies. Sorry.

“How do they taste? No one knows.” Read the rest

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