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(29 December 2020 – NASA) NASA has approved two heliophysics missions to explore the Sun and the system that drives space weather near Earth.

Together, NASA’s contribution to the Extreme Ultraviolet High-Throughput Spectroscopic Telescope Epsilon Mission, or EUVST, and the Electrojet Zeeman Imaging Explorer, or EZIE, will help us understand the Sun and Earth as an interconnected system.

Understanding the physics that drive the solar wind and solar explosions – including solar flares and coronal mass ejections – could one day help scientists predict these events, which can impact human technology and explorers in space.

From the International Space Station’s orbit 269 miles above the Indian Ocean southwest of Australia, this nighttime photograph captures the aurora australis, or “southern lights.” Russia’s Soyuz MS-12 crew ship is in the foreground and Progress 72 resupply ship in the background. (courtesy: NASA)

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) leads the Extreme Ultraviolet High-Throughput Spectroscopic Telescope (EUVST) Epsilon Mission (Solar-C EUVST Mission), along with other international partners. Targeted for launch in 2026, EUVST is a solar telescope that will study how the solar atmosphere releases solar wind and drives eruptions of solar material. These phenomena propagate out from the Sun and influence the space radiation environment throughout the solar system. NASA’s hardware contributions to the mission include an intensified UV detector and support electronics, spectrograph components, a guide telescope, software, and a slit-jaw imaging system to provide context for the spectrographic measurement. The budget for NASA contributions to EUVST is $55 million. The principal investigator for the NASA contribution to EUVST is Harry Warren at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington.

The Electrojet Zeeman Imaging Explorer (EZIE) will study electric currents in Earth’s atmosphere linking aurora to the Earth’s magnetosphere – one piece of Earth’s complicated space weather system, which responds to solar activity and other factors. The Auroral Electrojet (AE) index is a common measure of geomagnetic activity levels, even though the details of the structure of these currents is not understood. EZIE will launch no earlier than June 2024. The total budget for the EZIE mission is $53.3 million. The principal investigator for the mission is Jeng-Hwa (Sam) Yee at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

“We are very pleased to add these new missions to the growing fleet of satellites that are studying our Sun-Earth system using an amazing array of unprecedented observational tools,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “In addition to my enthusiasm at selecting a pioneering multi-point observatory focused on the auroral electrojets, I am particularly excited to follow up the success of the Yohkoh and Hinode solar science missions with another international collaboration with JAXA and other European partners on EUVST.”

The EUVST mission addresses the recommendations of a July 2017 final report delivered by the multi-agency Next Generation Solar Physics Mission Science Objectives Team. EUVST will take comprehensive UV spectroscopy measurements of the solar atmosphere at the highest level of detail to date, which will allow scientists to tease out how different magnetic and plasma processes drive coronal heating and energy release.

“We’re excited to work with our international partners to answer some of our fundamental questions about the Sun,” said Nicky Fox, Heliophysics Division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “EUVST’s observations will complement our current missions to give us new insight into our star.”

EZIE is an investigation comprising a trio of CubeSats that will study the source of and changes in the auroral electrojet, an electric current circling through Earth’s atmosphere around 60-90 miles above the surface and extending into the Earth’s magnetosphere. The interaction of the magnetosphere and the solar wind compresses the Sun-facing side of the magnetosphere and drags out the night-time side of the magnetosphere into what is called a “magnetotail.” Auroral electrojets are generated by changes in the structure of the magnetotail. The same space weather phenomena that power the beautiful aurora can cause interference with radio and communication signals and utility grids on Earth’s surface, and damage to spacecraft in orbit.

“With these new missions, we’re expanding how we study the Sun, space, and Earth as an interconnected system,” said Peg Luce, deputy director of the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “EZIE’s use of instrument technology proven on Earth science CubeSat missions is just one example of how science and technology development at NASA go hand in hand across disciplines.”

Funding for these missions of opportunity comes from the Heliophysics Explorers Program, managed by the Explorers Program Office at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

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NASA conducts test of SLS rocket core stage for Artemis I Moon mission

NASA conducts test of SLS rocket core stage for Artemis

(17 January 2021 – NASA) NASA conducted a hot fire Saturday of the core stage for the agency’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket that will launch the Artemis I mission to the Moon. The hot fire is the final test of the Green Run series.

The test plan called for the rocket’s four RS-25 engines to fire for a little more than eight minutes – the same amount of time it will take to send the rocket to space following launch. The team successfully completed the countdown and ignited the engines, but the engines shut down a little more than one minute into the hot fire. Teams are assessing the data to determine what caused the early shutdown, and will determine a path forward.

For the test, the 212-foot core stage generated 1.6 million pounds of thrust, while anchored in the B-2 Test Stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. The hot fire test included loading 733,000 pounds of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen – mirroring the launch countdown procedure – and igniting the engines.

The core stage for the first flight of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket is seen in the B-2 Test Stand during a hot fire test Jan. 16, 2021, at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. (courtesy: NASA Television)

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The four RS-25 engines fired for a little more than one minute and generated 1.6 million pounds of thrust. (courtesy: NASA Television)

“Saturday’s test was an important step forward to ensure that the core stage of the SLS rocket is ready for the Artemis I mission, and to carry crew on future missions,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who attended the test. “Although the engines did not fire for the full duration, the team successfully worked through the countdown, ignited the engines, and gained valuable data to inform our path forward.”

Support teams across the Stennis test complex provided high-pressure gases to the test stand, delivered all operational electrical power, supplied more than 330,000 gallons of water per minute to protect the test stand flame deflector and ensure the structural integrity of the core stage, and captured data needed to evaluate the core stage performance.

“Seeing all four engines ignite for the first time during the core stage hot fire test was a big milestone for the Space Launch System team” said John Honeycutt, the SLS program manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “We will analyze the data, and what we learned from today’s test will help us plan the right path forward for verifying this new core stage is ready for flight on the Artemis I mission.”

The Green Run series of tests began in January 2020, when the stage was delivered from NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans and installed in the B-2 test stand at Stennis. The team completed the first of the eight tests in the Green Run series before standing down in March due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. After resuming work in May, the team worked through the remaining tests in the series, while also standing down periodically as six tropical storms or hurricanes affected the Gulf Coast. Each test built upon the previous test with increasing complexity to evaluate the stages’ sophisticated systems, and the hot fire test that lit up all four engines was the final test in the series.

“Stennis has not witnessed this level of power since the testing of Saturn V stages in the 1960s,” said Stennis Center Director Rick Gilbrech. “Stennis is the premier rocket propulsion facility that tested the Saturn V first and second stages that carried humans to the Moon during the Apollo Program, and now, this hot fire is exactly why we test like we fly and fly like we test. We will learn from today’s early shutdown, identify any corrections if needed, and move forward.”

In addition to analyzing the data, teams also will inspect the core stage and its four RS-25 engines before determining the next steps. Under the Artemis program, NASA is working to land the first woman and the next man on the Moon in 2024. SLS and the Orion spacecraft that will carry astronauts to space, along with the human landing system and the Gateway in orbit around the Moon, are NASA’s backbone for deep space exploration.

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InSight’s ‘Mole’ ends its journey on Mars

InSights ‘Mole ends its journey on Mars

(14 January 2021 – JPL) The heat probe developed and built by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and deployed on Mars by NASA’s InSight lander has ended its portion of the mission.

Since Feb. 28, 2019, the probe, called the “mole,” has been attempting to burrow into the Martian surface to take the planet’s internal temperature, providing details about the interior heat engine that drives the Mars’ evolution and geology. But the soil’s unexpected tendency to clump deprived the spike-like mole of the friction it needs to hammer itself to a sufficient depth.

After getting the top of the mole about 2 or 3 centimeters under the surface, the team tried one last time to use a scoop on InSight’s robotic arm to scrape soil onto the probe and tamp it down to provide added friction. After the probe conducted 500 additional hammer strokes on Saturday, Jan. 9, with no progress, the team called an end to their efforts.

Part of an instrument called the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3), the mole is a 16-inch-long (40-centimeter-long) pile driver connected to the lander by a tether with embedded temperature sensors. These sensors are designed to measure heat flowing from the planet once the mole has dug at least 10 feet (3 meters) deep.

In this artist’s concept of NASA’s InSight lander on Mars, layers of the planet’s subsurface can be seen below, and dust devils can be seen in the background. (courtesy: IPGP/Nicolas Sarter)

“We’ve given it everything we’ve got, but Mars and our heroic mole remain incompatible,” said HP3’s principal investigator, Tilman Spohn of DLR. “Fortunately, we’ve learned a lot that will benefit future missions that attempt to dig into the subsurface.”

While NASA’s Phoenix lander scraped the top layer of the Martian surface, no mission before InSight has tried to burrow into the soil. Doing so is important for a variety of reasons: Future astronauts may need to dig through soil to access water ice, while scientists want to study the subsurface’s potential to support microbial life.

“We are so proud of our team who worked hard to get InSight’s mole deeper into the planet. It was amazing to see them troubleshoot from millions of miles away,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “This is why we take risks at NASA – we have to push the limits of technology to learn what works and what doesn’t. In that sense, we’ve been successful: We’ve learned a lot that will benefit future missions to Mars and elsewhere, and we thank our German partners from DLR for providing this instrument and for their collaboration.”

Hard-Earned Wisdom

The unexpected properties of the soil near the surface next to InSight will be puzzled over by scientists for years to come. The mole’s design was based on soil seen by previous Mars missions – soil that proved very different from what the mole encountered. For two years, the team worked to adapt the unique and innovative instrument to these new circumstances.

“The mole is a device with no heritage. What we attempted to do – to dig so deep with a device so small – is unprecedented,” said Troy Hudson, a scientist and engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California who has led efforts to get the mole deeper into the Martian crust. “Having had the opportunity to take this all the way to the end is the greatest reward.”

Besides learning about the soil at this location, engineers have gained invaluable experience operating the robotic arm. In fact, they used the arm and scoop in ways they never intended to at the outset of the mission, including pressing against and down on the mole. Planning the moves and getting them just right with the commands they were sending up to InSight pushed the team to grow.

They’ll put their hard-earned wisdom to use in the future. The mission intends to employ the robotic arm in burying the tether that conveys data and power between the lander and InSight’s seismometer, which has recorded more than 480 marsquakes. Burying it will help reduce temperature changes that have created cracking and popping sounds in seismic data.

There’s much more science to come from InSight, short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy, and Heat Transport. NASA recently extended the mission for two more years, to Dec. 2022. Along with hunting for quakes, the lander hosts a radio experiment that is collecting data to reveal whether the planet’s core is liquid or solid. And InSight’s weather sensors are capable of providing some of the most detailed meteorological data ever collected on Mars. Together with weather instruments aboard NASA’s Curiosity rover and its new Perseverance rover, which lands on Feb. 18, the three spacecraft will create the first meteorological network on another planet.

More About the Mission

JPL manages InSight for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. InSight is part of NASA’s Discovery Program, managed by the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Lockheed Martin Space in Denver built the InSight spacecraft, including its cruise stage and lander, and supports spacecraft operations for the mission.

A number of European partners, including France’s Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), are supporting the InSight mission. CNES provided the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) instrument to NASA, with the principal investigator at IPGP (Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris). Significant contributions for SEIS came from IPGP; the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Germany; the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) in Switzerland; Imperial College London and Oxford University in the United Kingdom; and JPL. DLR provided the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) instrument, with significant contributions from the Space Research Center (CBK) of the Polish Academy of Sciences and Astronika in Poland. Spain’s Centro de Astrobiología (CAB) supplied the temperature and wind sensors.

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Blue Origin successful demonstrates New Shepard crew capsule upgrades

Blue Origin successful demonstrates New Shepard crew capsule upgrades

(14 January 2021 – Blue Origin) Blue Origin has successfully completed its 14th mission to space and back today for the New Shepard program.

The New Shepard crew capsule outfitted with astronaut experience upgrades landing at Launch Site One. (courtesy: Blue Origin)

Mission NS-14 featured a crew capsule outfitted with astronaut experience upgrades for upcoming flights with passengers onboard. Capsule upgrades included:

  • Speakers in the cabin with a microphone and a push-to-talk button at each seat so astronauts can continuously talk to Mission Control.
  • First flight of the crew alert system with a panel at each seat relaying important safety messages to passengers.
  • Cushioned wall linings and sound suppression devices to reduce ambient noise inside the capsule.
  • Environmental systems, including a cooling system and humidity controls to regulate temperature and prevent capsule windows from fogging during flight, as well as carbon dioxide scrubbing.
  • Six seats.

Also today during ascent, the booster rotated at 2-3 degrees per second. This is done to give future passengers a 360-degree view of space during the flight.

This flight continued to prove the robustness and stability of the New Shepard system and the BE-3PM liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen engine.

Also onboard today were more than 50,000 postcards from Blue Origin’s nonprofit Club for the Future. The Club has now flown over 100,000 postcards to space and back from students around the world. More information here.

Key mission stats

  • 15th consecutive successful crew capsule landing (every flight in program, including pad escape test in 2012).
  • The crew capsule reached an apogee of 347,568 ft above ground level (AGL) / 351,215 ft mean sea level (MSL) (105 km AGL/107 km MSL).
  • The booster reached an apogee of 347,211 ft AGL / 350,858 ft MSL (105 km AGL/106 km MSL).
  • The mission elapsed time was 10 min, 10 sec and the max ascent velocity was 2,242 mph / 3,609 km/h.

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