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(7 January 2021 – NASA) NASA has chosen four small-scale astrophysics missions for further concept development in a new program called Pioneers.

Through small satellites and scientific balloons, these selections enable new platforms for exploring cosmic phenomena such as galaxy evolution, exoplanets, high-energy neutrinos, and neutron star mergers.

As neutron stars collide, some of the debris blasts away in particle jets moving at nearly the speed of light, producing a brief burst of gamma rays. (courtesy: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/CI Lab)

“The principal investigators of these concept studies bring innovative, out-of-the-box thinking to the problem of how to do high-impact astrophysics experiments on a small budget,” said Thomas H. Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “Each of the proposed experiments would do something no other NASA telescope or mission can do, filling important gaps in our understanding of the universe as a whole.”

These are the four concepts chosen for further study:

  • Aspera is a SmallSat that will study galaxy evolution. Through observations in ultraviolet light, it will examine hot gas in the space between galaxies, called the intergalactic medium, and the inflow and outflow of gas from galaxies. The intergalactic medium is a major component of the universe, but is poorly measured; Aspera would close this gap. The principal investigator is Carlos Vargas at the University of Arizona.
  • Pandora is a SmallSat that will study 20 stars and their 39 exoplanets in visible and infrared light. It is aimed at disentangling the signals from stars and planetary atmospheres. Understanding how changes in starlight affects measurements of exoplanets is an outstanding problem in the search for habitable planets beyond the solar system. The principal investigator is Elisa Quintana of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
  • StarBurst is a SmallSat that will detect high-energy gamma rays from events such as the mergers of dense stellar remnants called neutron stars. This would provide valuable insight into such events, which are also detected through gravitational waves by observatories on Earth. These events are where most of the heavy metals in the universe, such as gold and platinum, are formed. To date, only one such event has been observed simultaneously in gravitational waves and gamma-rays; StarBurst would find up to 10 per year. The principal investigator is Daniel Kocevski of NASA Marshall Space Flight Center.
  • PUEO is a balloon mission designed to launch from Antarctica that will detect signals from ultra-high energy neutrinos, particles that contain valuable clues about the highest energy astrophysical processes, including the creation of black holes and neutron star mergers. Neutrinos travel across the universe undisturbed, carrying information about events billions of light years away. PUEO would be the most sensitive survey of cosmic ultra-high energy neutrinos ever conducted. The principal investigator is Abigail Vieregg of the University of Chicago.

After additional definition, these four concept studies will undergo a concept study review before being approved for flight.

The Pioneers program provides opportunities for early-to-mid-career researchers to propose innovative experiments and lead space or suborbital science investigations for the first time.

“Through this program designed to attract young professionals, we received two dozen great ideas from a diverse cohort of innovators at universities, research laboratories, and NASA centers,” said Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

The principal investigators must be creative in designing missions to keep expenses down, as the cost cap for a Pioneers mission is $20 million. This low price point is enabled in part by the flourishing industry of small satellites for Earth observing and internet access, allowing researchers to purchase off-the-shelf spacecraft. In addition, telescopes developed by other government agencies can be used, rather than starting from scratch.

The program itself is an experiment for NASA. The agency has never solicited proposals for these kinds of astrophysics experiments at such low cost caps with such tight constraints. Some of the concepts may, upon further study, require a bigger budget, meaning they would not ultimately be approved for flight through the Pioneers program.

“We don’t know if there is great astrophysics that can be done in a $20 million satellite, but we challenged the community and they sent in a lot of innovative proposals,” Hertz said. “Now, we’re excited to see if they can deliver.”

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Space

Lockheed Martin-built Orion spacecraft is ready for its Moon mission

Lockheed Martin built Orion spacecraft is ready for its Moon mission

(14 January 2021 – Lockheed Martin) NASA’s Orion spacecraft is ready for its mission to the Moon.

Lockheed Martin has completed assembly and testing of the Orion Artemis I spacecraft and has transferred possession to NASA’s Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) team today. Assembled at Kennedy Space Center, the EGS team will then perform final preparations on the spacecraft for its mission to the Moon later this year.

(courtesy: Lockhhed Martin)

Ready for the Moon

Orion is NASA’s new human-rated exploration-class spaceship that will take astronauts into deep space including the Moon and Mars. Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for NASA and built the crew module, crew module adaptor and launch abort system. The European Space Agency provides the European Service Module for Orion.

The Artemis I mission will be the first launch of the Orion spacecraft aboard NASA’s Space Launch System rocket. Over the course of three weeks, the uncrewed Orion capsule will fly out and orbit the Moon and return to Earth. This test mission will validate the spacecraft, rocket and ground systems for future crewed missions.

“Orion is a unique and impressive spacecraft and the team did an outstanding job to get us to this day,” said Mike Hawes, Orion vice president and program manager for Lockheed Martin. “The launch and flight of Artemis I will be an impressive sight, but more importantly it will confirm Orion is ready to safely carry humans to the Moon and back home. This tremendous advancement opens the door to a new era of deep space exploration that will ultimately benefit us back here on Earth.”

Orion is being transferred from the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building at Kennedy, where it was assembled, to multiple Kennedy facilities where EGS will load propellants and other consumables such as ammonia, helium and nitrogen, and integrate the launch abort system and protective ogive fairing. After this is completed, it will be taken to the Vertical Assembly Facility to be lifted onto the SLS rocket and prepared for roll to the launch pad.

Crewed Missions Underway

The launch later this year will be the beginning of many Artemis missions to the Moon. The next mission, Artemis II, will be the first with a crew onboard and will go out to orbit the Moon and return. That Orion crew module and service module adapter are well under assembly at Kennedy and will see its first power-on of its integrated computers this summer.

Artemis III will see the first woman and the next man to walk on the Moon. Orion will carry them out to orbit the Moon where they will ultimately land on the surface using a lunar landing system. That spacecraft is already under construction as major structural elements of the crew module pressure vessel are arriving at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility.

As part of an Orion production and operations contract, NASA ordered three Orion spacecraft from Lockheed Martin for Artemis missions III-V with plans to order three additional Orion spacecraft for Artemis missions VI-VIII and options for up to 12 missions.

About Lockheed Martin

Headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland, Lockheed Martin is a global security and aerospace company that employs approximately 110,000 people worldwide and is principally engaged in the research, design, development, manufacture, integration and sustainment of advanced technology systems, products and services.

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NASA’s Juno mission expands into the future

NASAs Juno mission expands into the future

(13 January 2021 – JPL) NASA has authorized a mission extension for its Juno spacecraft exploring Jupiter.

The agency’s most distant planetary orbiter will now continue its investigation of the solar system’s largest planet through September 2025, or until the spacecraft’s end of life. This expansion tasks Juno with becoming an explorer of the full Jovian system – Jupiter and its rings and moons – with multiple rendezvous planned for three of Jupiter’s most intriguing Galilean moons: Ganymede, Europa, and Io.

This view of Jupiter’s atmosphere from NASA’s Juno spacecraft includes something remarkable, two storms caught in the act of merging. (courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSSImage processing by Tanya Oleksuik)

“Since its first orbit in 2016, Juno has delivered one revelation after another about the inner workings of this massive gas giant,” said principal investigator Scott Bolton of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “With the extended mission, we will answer fundamental questions that arose during Juno’s prime mission while reaching beyond the planet to explore Jupiter’s ring system and Galilean satellites.”

Proposed in 2003 and launched in 2011, Juno arrived at Jupiter on July 4, 2016. The prime mission will be completed in July 2021. The extended mission involves 42 additional orbits, including close passes of Jupiter’s north polar cyclones; flybys of Ganymede, Europa, and Io; as well as the first extensive exploration of the faint rings encircling the planet.

“By extending the science goals of this important orbiting observatory, the Juno team will start tackling a breadth of science historically required of flagships,” said Lori Glaze, planetary science division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “This represents an efficient and innovative advance for NASA’s solar system exploration strategy.”

The data Juno collects will contribute to the goals of the next generation of missions to the Jovian system – NASA’s Europa Clipper and the ESA (European Space Agency) JUpiter ICy moons Explorer (JUICE) mission. Juno’s investigation of Jupiter’s volcanic moon Io addresses many science goals identified by the National Academy of Sciences for a future Io explorer mission.

The extended mission’s science campaigns will expand on discoveries Juno has already made about Jupiter’s interior structure, internal magnetic field, atmosphere (including polar cyclones, deep atmosphere, and aurora), and magnetosphere.

“With this extension, Juno becomes its own follow-on mission,” said Steve Levin, Juno project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “Close-up observations of the pole, radio occultations” – a remote sensing technique to measure properties of a planetary atmosphere or ring systems – “satellite flybys, and focused magnetic field studies combine to make a new mission, the next logical step in our exploration of the Jovian system.”

Jupiter’s enigmatic Great Blue Spot, an isolated patch of intense magnetic field near the planet’s equator, will be the target of a high-spatial-resolution magnetic survey during six flybys early in the extended mission. As Juno’s orbit evolves, multiple flybys of the moons Ganymede (2), Europa (3), and Io (11) are planned, as well as multiple passages through Jupiter’s tenuous rings.

Juno will also fly through the Europa and Io tori – ring-shaped clouds of ions – on multiple occasions, characterizing the radiation environment near these satellites to better prepare the Europa Clipper and JUICE missions for optimizing observation strategies and planning, science priorities, and mission design. The extended mission also adds planetary geology and ring dynamics to Juno’s extensive list of science investigations.

An Evolving Orbit

The natural evolution of Juno’s orbit around the gas giant provides the wealth of new science opportunities that the extended mission capitalizes on. Every science pass sends the solar-powered spacecraft zooming low over Jupiter’s cloud tops, collecting data from a unique vantage point no other spacecraft has enjoyed.

The point during each orbit where Juno comes closest to the planet is called perijove (or PJ). Over the course of the mission, Juno’s perijoves have migrated northward, dramatically improving resolution over the northern hemisphere. The design of the extended mission takes advantage of the continued northward migration of these perijoves to sharpen its view of the multiple cyclones encircling the north pole while incorporating ring and Galilean moon flybys.

“The mission designers have done an amazing job crafting an extended mission that conserves the mission’s single most valuable onboard resource – fuel,” said Ed Hirst, the Juno project manager at JPL. “Gravity assists from multiple satellite flybys steer our spacecraft through the Jovian system while providing a wealth of science opportunities.” The satellite flybys also reduce Juno’s orbital period, which increases the total number of science orbits that can be obtained.”

nasas 3

NASA has extended the mission of its Juno spacecraft exploring Jupiter. The extended mission involves 42 additional orbits, expands on discoveries Juno has already made and adds exploration of the rings encircling the planet as well as flybys of Ganymede, Europa, and Io. (courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI)

The satellite encounters begin with a low-altitude flyby of Ganymede on June 7, 2021 (PJ34), which reduces the orbital period from about 53 days to 43 days. That flyby sets up a close flyby of Europa on Sept. 29, 2022 (PJ45), reducing the orbital period further to 38 days. A pair of close Io flybys, on Dec. 30, 2023 (PJ57), and Feb. 3, 2024 (PJ58), combine to reduce the orbital period to 33 days.

More About the Mission

JPL, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, California, manages the Juno mission for the principal investigator, Scott J. Bolton, of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. Juno is part of NASA’s New Frontiers Program, which is managed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Lockheed Martin Space in Denver built and operates the spacecraft.

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Astrobotic selects Navigation Doppler Lidar from Psionic for mission to deliver VIPER to the lunar surface

Astrobotic selects Navigation Doppler Lidar from Psionic for mission to

(14 January 2021 – Astrobotic) Astrobotic today announced they have selected Navigation Doppler Lidar (NDL) from Psionic for their mission in late 2023 to deliver NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) to the South Pole of the Moon.

The NDL serves as a critical sensor element as part of the Griffin Lander’s Guidance, Navigation, and Control (GN&C) system to ensure a safe, precise landing. In June 2020, NASA awarded a $199.5 million contract to Astrobotic under its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative.

A visual rendering of Griffin utilizing Navigation Doppler Lidar sensor to guide landing on the lunar surface. (courtesy: Psionic)

“Griffin is a vehicle unlike any other and it’s playing a critical role in our return to the Moon by delivering VIPER to the lunar South Pole,” said Daniel Gillies, Mission Director at Astrobotic. “We are excited and honored to have been selected to deliver VIPER the Moon. A safe, precise landing is critical to reach the target areas at the South Pole where water ice is most abundant, and we’re confident that NDL will help us achieve that precision landing in combination with our own suite of terrain navigation and hazard detection sensors.”

NASA’s VIPER is being designed to search for water ice on the moon – a vital preparatory mission that will guide the planned landing sites for the next Artemis human missions to the Moon. NDL was developed by NASA over 10+ years for precise, safe landings on the Moon and in other challenging environments.

The Astrobotic NDL unit will be built by Psionic, which is NASA’s licensee for the underlying patents for NDL. Several NASA-designed NDL payloads are being used to help robotic spacecraft land on the Moon. A separate, NASA-designed and provided NDL is also flying on the Astrobotic Peregrine mission in 2021.

“The accuracy and confidence NDL provides is critical given where these missions are headed,” according to Steve Sandford, founder and CTO of Psionic. “The NDL is an important link in the navigation sensor chain Griffin will use to meet NASA’s stringent landing requirements.”

NDL provides unprecedented ground-relative range and velocity-vector accuracies, precise vehicle coordinates, and other measurements necessary for safe, pinpoint landings, which are critical in narrowly defined landing zones such as those at the South Pole.

About Astrobotic

Astrobotic is a space robotics company making space accessible to the world. They develop advanced navigation, operation, and computing systems for spacecraft, and their fleet of lunar landers and rovers deliver payloads to the Moon for companies, governments, universities, non-profits, and individuals. The company has more than 50 prior and ongoing NASA and commercial technology contracts and a corporate sponsorship with DHL. Astrobotic was founded in 2007 and is headquartered in Pittsburgh, PA.

About Psionic

Psionic Doppler Lidar provides advanced navigation for Space exploration and Defense applications in challenging environments. The company, based in Hampton, Virginia, was founded in 2016 by the engineers and scientists who worked on Doppler Lidar at NASA for more than a decade.

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