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Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket launches on its ninth mission. Photo Credit: Blue Origin

For the second time in 2018, Blue Origin has launched its New Shepard rocket system. This particular uncrewed flight evaluated a high-altitude abort mode for the capsules launch escape system.

A graphic of the flight profile for New Shepard Mission 9. Image Credit: Blue Origin

The test took place at 11:11 a.m. EDT (15:11 GMT) July 18, 2018, from the company’s test facility north of the town of Van Horn, Texas, in the western part of the state. A landing of both the booster and capsule occurred successful seven and 11 minutes later, respectively. Overall, this was the ninth flight of the New Shepard test program since April 2015.

“Anything could have happened today, and this is the best possible outcome,” Ariane Cornell, the head of astronaut strategy and sales at Blue Origin, said during the company’s webcast.

When the countdown reached zero, the BE-3 engine at the base of the 60-foot (18-meter) tall rocket ignited and spooled to full power. Eight seconds later, the booster with the capsule leapt off the pad, rising into the blue Texas sky.

Continuing to accelerate and gain altitude, most of the flight performed as a normal flight would. About two minutes, 20 seconds into the flight, after the rocket had achieved a maximum ascent velocity of about 2,236 mph (3,598 kph), the main engine cut off as planned and the capsule separated.

However, some 20 seconds later, the purpose of the test flight commenced—the high-altitude abort. This involved the firing of the Aerojet Rocketdyne-built solid rocket motor at the base of the capsule. It pushed the pressurized vessel, which is designed to hold up to six people, away from the booster and higher in altitude. From there, the test evaluated the capsule’s ability to use its onboard thrusters to stabilize itself to ensure a proper orientation for reentry.

Aside from firing its abort motor and achieving the its highest altitude to date—some 389,846 feet (118,825 meters)—the capsule’s descent proceeded as it would during a normal flight. 

At about 8,500 feet (2,600 meters), while the vehicle was falling at some 200 mph (320 kph), three drogue chutes deployed. This ensured the capsule remained upright as the three main parachutes were pulled out a few seconds later.

Seconds after separating from the booster, the New Shepard capsule ignited its abort motor in a high-altitude test. Photo Credit: Blue Origin

The three main parachutes slowed the capsule to a leisurely 16 mph (26 kph) as it continued to descend to the ground in West Texas. Moments before landing, retro rockets fire to cushioned the shock of landing.

Inside the capsule was the company’s test dummy, dubbed “Mannequin Skywalker,” as well as several experiments, including an in-capsule Wi-Fi access test, data gathering of the conditions inside the vessel and an evaluation of a new vibration isolation platform.

Meanwhile, the booster part of the New Shepard system continued its trajectory and began a controlled fall, extending air brakes during the descent. 

At an altitude of about 7,000 feet (2,100 meters), after the booster had slowed to some 375 mph (600 kph), the BE-3 engine ignited for a second time to perform a landing burn, touching down softly on a pad about two miles (3.2 kilometers) north of its launch pad.

The fully-reusable booster is the third used by Blue Origin. The first one had a landing failure in April 2015. The second one flew five times between November 2015 and October 2016 before being retired.

The July 18, 2018, flight was the third performed by the third booster. Its previous flights were in December 2017 and April 2018.

New Shepard is being developed by Blue Origin to send people and experiments on suborbital hops. According to a Reuters report, the company hopes start launching with people as early as next year for about $200,000 to $300,000.

Founded by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos in 2000, the company is also developing a larger reusable orbital-class rocket called New Glenn, which could launch from Florida as early as 2020.

Replay of Mission 9 Webcast - YouTube

Video courtesy of Blue Origin

The post Blue Origin’s 9th New Shepard flight tests high-altitude abort mode appeared first on SpaceFlight Insider.

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Launch of Iridium 1 from Vandenburg Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 4. Photo Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX is working to rack up another successful launch for its 2018 manifest in the next couple of days. As is often the case with the NewSpace firm, this mission will be a commercial flight meant to further a long-standing collaboration with one of the company’s most loyal customers.

An Iridium NEXT satellite. Image Credit: Iridium Communications

The successful completion of this mission should see the number of Iridium NEXT satellites placed in orbit on behalf of Iridium Communications increase to 65. It is currently thought that to complete the constellation will take at least eight flights to loft the entire fleet of 75 spacecraft.

Iridium NEXT represents a $3 billion investment by the company. Launches like Flight Seven is to put in place a mobile, global satellite network and has been described by Iridium Communications as “…one of the largest technology upgrades ever completed in space.”

If everything with the Iridium NEXT constellation performs as advertised, the fleet will provide an array of services, such as global aircraft tracking and surveillance provided by the AireonSM system.

This series of launches are being flown to replace Iridium Communications’s entire fleet of “legacy” spacecraft already in service. When these spacecraft are in place, this new constellation will owe its success to some eight flights of SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets.

The mission is currently slated to lift off around 5:12 am PDT (12:12 UTC) on Friday, July 20. Friday’s planned launch should be the next-to-last launch of the planned Iridium NEXT program.

Some 81 Iridium NEXT satellites have been constructed. Sixty-six of these will comprise the operational on-orbit fleet with an additional nine in space serving as on-orbit spares. The remaining six will stay on Earth and serve as ground spares.

The version of the Falcon 9 rocket selected to carry out this particular flight, the Block 5 variant of the launch vehicle and is scheduled to take to California’s skies on July 20 (2018) from SpaceX’s launch facilities located at Vandenberg Air Force Base’s Space Launch Complex 4 (SLC-4). The two-stage Falcon 9 is fueled by a mixture of liquid oxygen and RP-1 (a refined version of kerosene).

SpaceX has already carried out 12 flights so far this year (2018), either from its facilities at Vandenberg or from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40 in Florida.

“Our strong presence in the world of safety services is a testament to the unique benefits our network can enable,” said Matt Desch, chief executive officer at Iridium stated in a May 2018 release issued by the company. “With every successful launch, we are one step closer to Iridium NEXT being fully operational, which officially starts a new age of satellite connectivity. When it comes to safety communications, especially for those operating in the skies or out at sea, having built-in network redundancy and resiliency enabled by our satellite’s crosslinks is paramount, especially during times of distress. We recognize this and feel that as the only network covering the entire planet, we have an inherent responsibility to constantly innovate for this critical arena.”

The Iridium NEXT Constellation - YouTube

Video courtesy of Dec. 22, 2017 Iridium NEXT launch provided by IridiumComm

The post Iridium NEXT Flight Seven readied for launch atop SpaceX Falcon 9 appeared first on SpaceFlight Insider.

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This artist’s rendering shows NASA’s Juno spacecraft making one of its close passes over Jupiter. The probe is in a highly-elliptical, 53-day orbit around the gas giant. Image Credit: NASA

A new heat source detected near the south pole of Jupiter’s moon Io may be the site of a previously undiscovered volcano, according to researchers working with data returned by NASA’s Juno spacecraft.

An infrared image of the southern hemisphere of Jupiter’s moon Io. It was taken Dec. 16, 2017, by the JIRAM instrument on NASA’s Juno spacecraft at a distance of about 290,000 miles (470,000 kilometers). Photo Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / WwRI / ASI / INAF / JIRAM

Images captured by Juno’s Jovian InfraRed Auroral Mapper (JIRAM) instrument in the infrared reveal a hot spot detected Dec. 16, 2017, when the probe came within 290,000 miles (470,000 kilometers) of the innermost Galilean moon. In infrared images, brighter colors indicate higher temperatures.

Io is the smallest of Jupiter’s four Galilean moons, which were discovered by Galileo Galilei in 1610. It has a diameter of 2,264 miles (3,640 kilometers) and is the Solar Systems’ most volcanically active world. There are 150 known active volcanoes that spew lava up to 250 miles (400 kilometers) high into space. 

The moon’s volcanoes were discovered during previous missions to Jupiter including Voyagers 1 and 2, Galileo, Cassini, and New Horizons. Scientists suspect Io has approximately 250 more still-undiscovered volcanoes.

Churning activity within the moon’s interior is driven by the powerful gravitational pull of Jupiter and by the gravitational influences of the gas giant’s other three Galilean moons: Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.

“The new Io hot spot JIRAM picked up is about 200 miles (300 km) from the nearest previously mapped hot spot,” said Juno co-investigator Alessandro Mura of the National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) in Rome in a news release on the Juno mission website. “We are not ruling out movement or modification of a previously discovered hot spot, but it is difficult to imagine one could travel such a distance and still be considered the same feature.”

Juno has traveled almost 146 million miles (235 million kilometers) since entering orbit around Jupiter on July 4, 2016.

Circling Jupiter in an elliptical orbit, it has a science mission that takes it close to the planet every 53 days. During these close flybys, the probe studies the giant planet’s cloud tops and peers beneath them to image its auroras in an effort to learn more about Jupiter’s origins, structure, mangetosphere, and atmosphere, according to NASA.

Since orbit insertion, Juno has flown as close as 2,100 miles (3,400 kilometers ) above the giant planet’s cloud tops. The spacecraft’s 13th close flyby occurred on July 16, 2018. Future flybys are expected to come even closer to both the cloud tops and to Io.

Juno scientists are currently analyzing JIRAM data collected last December and will integrate it with information that will be gathered in upcoming flybys through the mission’s end in July 2021.

The post Juno may have found new volcano on Jupiter’s moon Io appeared first on SpaceFlight Insider.

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Image Credit: NASA

NASA and the agency’s commercial partners have been preparing for the Orion spacecraft’s Ascent Abort Test (AA-2) currently slated to take place in 2019. Aerojet Rocketdyne’s jettison motor is a critical part of this test and is being prepped for use.

The jettison motor is part of Orion’s Launch Abort System (LAS), which would be used in the advent of an anomaly during ascent. At present, the first launch of the Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System super heavy-lift rocket that would carry it aloft is slated to take place in June of 2020.

“Every time our engineers work on products supporting the Orion spacecraft or the Space Launch System rocket, they have astronaut safety front and center of mind,” said Aerojet Rocketdyne CEO and President Eileen Drake via a company-issued release. “The AA-2 test is a critical step to testing the Launch Abort System and our Jettison Motor and ensuring our astronauts always return home safely to their families.” 

The jettison motor separates the LAS from the Orion capsule on its way to orbit. AA-2 is meant to be a stress test of the LAS which is designed to pull the capsule and the crew inside to safety in the matter of miliseconds.

“The casting of the Orion Jettison Motor marks a critical step as we prepare for the first integrated flight of SLS and Orion to test the systems that will be used to take astronauts to the vicinity of the Moon and to other exciting destinations,” added Drake. 

Lockheed Martin is now working to assemble the various components of the LAS together into a complete element in preparation for. AA-2 Once it is ready, the LAS should propel a test article version of Orion to an altitude of 31,000 feet (9,449 meters). As some of the above suggests, this won’t be a leisurely cruise around the block. The capsule will be traveling at an estimated 1,000 miles per hour – roughly Mach 1.3. 

The recent casting of the Launch Abort System’s Jettison Motor means the LAS should have the capability to pull the LAS away from Orion spacecraft. The Jettison Motor has the capacity to deliver some 40,000 pounds of thrust. Fueled by solid rocket propellant, the fuel is poured into a casing where it cures over the course of several days. Designed to direct its thrust in a specific fashion, once activated the Jettison Motor can not be turned off. 

SFI Highlights from test of Launch Abort Motor QM-1 static fire - YouTube

Video courtesy of SpaceFlight Insider

The post Jettison Motor readied for integration into Orion’s LAS appeared first on SpaceFlight Insider.

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An artist’s rendering of a spacecraft being assembled in space. Image Credit: James Vaughan / SpaceFlight Insider

Space exploration and scientific discovery initiatives are increasingly becoming global endeavors. That’s because the costs involved can be beyond the resources any single country can afford. Perhaps, this can be attributed to the fact that space is itself a global issue. Even universities and colleges are involving students in studies that relate to space exploration and scientific discovery.

That’s why there are more learners seeking help from online resources like ThesisRush when asked to write a thesis on space exploration and scientific discoveries. Generally, scientific discovery and space exploration requires a global response. But, for the world to explore space and make more scientific discoveries there should be a space strategy by 2020. This strategy should incorporate carefully thought-out tactics that will be implemented by the year 2020.

Budget

Nations should set aside budgets for space exploration and scientific discovery activities. The funds set aside for this budget should go to research, innovation, and technology. Funding is very important because it facilitates different aspects of human space exploration. It facilitates technology development, demonstration, and research on propulsion and heavy-lift engines. With sufficient funds, space enthusiasts and scientists can venture into exploration robotic missions to different destinations and even hire the right personnel. This will facilitate more human space exploration.

Technology

Technology plays a very important role in space exploration and scientific discovery. In fact, space exploration can be almost impossible without technology. There are also many written papers on space exploration technology topics. Nevertheless, there is still more that needs to be done when it comes to space exploration technology. It’s for this reason that nations should fund the space exploration sector to enhance more technological developments and eventual discoveries.

Research is required to identify the needed capabilities. Multiple approaches should be taken to identify different space destinations that can be explored. Expanded efforts should be made to develop advanced spaceflight capabilities that will make space travel affordable and accessible. What’s more, exploration architectures that can be relied on should be developed. All this will be made possible by advancement in space exploration technology.

Politics

For space exploration and more scientific discoveries to be made, the political class has to be involved. That’s because politicians can influence the operations of the institutions that are responsible for space exploration activities if they are not involved from the beginning. It is therefore important for the players in the industry to let the political class know the importance of space exploration. Therefore, the strategy should factor in the need to inform politicians and the masses about the overall innovation and competitiveness that comes with space activities as well as their applications. That’s the only way to ensure that the political class approves the funds that will be requested and allocated to space exploration and scientific discovery activities.

Missions

The strategy should also highlight the mission that players in the sector intend to undertake. For instance, it should highlight new destinations that space enthusiasts intend to explore or scientific discoveries that they are focusing on. It should also make the implications of new discoveries and breakthroughs in space exploration known. This will convince stakeholders that the sector is worth supporting.

Space has always been a research subject via space science and a research tool via science in space. However, there are challenges that are faced by space scientists and explorers both humans and robotics. Nevertheless, space has the potential to help humans in responding to the challenges that humans face on earth including climate change and diminishing resources. Thus, space exploration and scientific discoveries can have short-term or immediate benefits to humans on earth. That’s why a clear and effective space strategy by 2020 should be formulated and implemented to enhance more discoveries in space.

The preceding is a guest post and the opinions stated above do not necessarily reflect those of SpaceFlight Insider

The post Space exploration and scientific discovery: Space strategy needed by 2020 appeared first on SpaceFlight Insider.

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Artist’s concept of what binary asteroid 2017 YE5 might look like. The two objects showed striking differences in radar reflectivity, which could indicate that they have different surface properties. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Observations by three of the world’s largest radio telescopes have revealed that a near-Earth asteroid discovered in 2017 is actually two objects, each about 3,000 feet (900 meters) in size, orbiting each other. The two bodies are nearly equal in mass and not touching each other.

Near-Earth asteroid 2017 YE5 was discovered on Dec. 21, 2017 by the Morocco Oukaimeden Sky Survey (MOSS), but no details were known about the asteroid’s physical characteristics until last month. 2017 YE5 is only the fourth “equal mass” binary near-Earth asteroid ever discovered. The most recent observations provide the most detailed images of this type of binary asteroid ever obtained.

On June 21, the asteroid made its closest approach to Earth for at least the next 170 years, coming to within 3.7 million miles (6 million kilometers) of Earth, or approximately 16 times the distance between the Earth and the Moon. NASA’s Goldstone Solar System Radar (GSSR) in California made observations on June 21 and 22 that provided the fist indications that asteroid  2017 YE5 could be a binary system. The observations showed two distinct lobes, but astronomers could not determine if the two bodies were connected or separated.

On June 24, astronomers at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico collaborated with their colleagues at the Green Bank Observatory (GBO) in West Virgina to use their observatories in a bi-static radar configuration (Arecibo transmitted the radar signal and Green Bank received the return signal). Working together, they were able to confirm that 2017 YE5 consists of two separate bodies. Both Goldstone and Arecibo had independently confirmed the asteroid’s binary nature by June 26.

The new observations show that the two bodies revolve around each other once every 20 to 24 hours. Radar images show that the two objects are larger than suggested by their optical brightness, indicating that they do not reflect as much sunlight as a typical rocky asteroid. Images taken by Goldstone on June 21 show a striking difference in radar reflectivity between the two objects, suggesting that they may have different densities, near-surface compositions, or different surface roughnesses.

The discovery of YE5’s binary nature provides researchers with an important opportunity to increase understanding of different types of binary asteroids and to study the formation mechanisms of binaries and contact binaries. The combined radar and optical observations of YE5 may allow researchers to estimate the densities of the two objects, giving researchers a better understanding of their composition, internal structure and how they formed.

Rare Double Asteroid Revealed by NASA, Observatories - YouTube

Video courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

The post Trio of observatories reveal rare double asteroid appeared first on SpaceFlight Insider.

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OA-9 Cygnus as seen during its arrival at the ISS on May 24, 2018. Photo Credit: NASA

Following two months attached to the International Space Station, the ninth Cygnus resupply spacecraft was unberthed and released from the orbiting outpost to perform a secondary two-week free-flight mission.

The Northrop Grumman (formerly Orbital ATK) OA-9 Cygnus was unberthed in the early-morning hours of July 15, 2018, before being released at 8:37 a.m. EDT (12:37 GMT). Upon departure the cargo ship and ISS were flying 253 miles (407 kilometers) above the southeastern border of Colombia. Expedition 56 flight engineers Serena Aunon-Chancellor of NASA and Alexander Gerst of the European Space Agency (two of six people residing at the outpost) were at the controls of the station’s 57.7-foot (17.6-meter) robotic Canadarm2 and commanded it to release the vehicle.

“It was really cool watching Cygnus depart,” said Expedition 56 Flight Engineer Serena Aunon-Chancellor of NASA to Mission Control in Houston. “[It was] almost a little surreal to watch a cargo vehicle like that depart the station and then to see it from a distance and just think this was just a normal day at the office.”

A view of the OA-9 Cygnus with Soyuz MS-09 docked in the background. Photo Credit: NASA

The OA-9 Cygnus, named S.S. J.R. Thompson, was launched to the outpost on May 21. After a three-day trek, the spacecraft rendezvoused with the ISS and came within about 10 meters of the outpost’s Destiny laboratory module. Using Canadarm2, the then Expedition 55 crew captured the freighter. Several hours later, the arm was used to maneuver the ship to the Earth-facing port of Unity to be berthed.

Over the course of its 52-day stay at the ISS, its 7,400 pounds (3,400 kilograms) of cargo was unloaded and then reloaded with some 6,600 pounds (3,000 kilograms) of unneeded equipment for eventual disposal by burning up over the Pacific Ocean.

Several days before unberthing operations were underway, a unique task was performed by Cygnus—a test of the spacecraft’s reboost capability. It was the first time a commercial vehicle performed this task, which is typically handled by Russian Progress spacecraft.

At 4:25 p.m. EDT (20:25 GMT) July 10, Cygnus’s main engine was fired for about 50 seconds. Although brief, it still raised the altitude of about 295 feet, according to NASA.

The space station flies some 250 miles (402 kilometers) above Earth. However, there is still a tiny amount of atmospheric particles that constantly slow the 400-metric-ton outpost down, gradually lowering its orbit. If reboosts every few months are not performed, eventually the station would fall out of the sky.

Reboosts of the station were performed by the now-retired NASA’s space shuttles many times during the construction phase of the outpost between 1998 and 2011. Since then, Russia’s Progress spacecraft has been the primary vehicle to raise the orbit of the ISS. Additionally the European Space Agency’s Automated Transfer Vehicle, which just like the space shuttle has since been retired, also helped with reboosts.

The Zvezda service module, which was launched in 2000, also has a fuel reserve and can raise the orbit of the space station. But as it is limited, it is reserved for use only when a visiting vehicle is unable to do said task.

Now that the OA-9 Cygnus’s ISS mission is complete, it won’t perform a deorbit burn until July 30. That two-week free-flight will be used to deploy six CubeSats using an external NanoRacks deployer attached to the spacecraft. Once complete, Cygnus will be commanded to deorbit over the southern Pacific Ocean to burn up safely.

The next Cygnus is currently planned for late November 2018. However, the exact date will flex over the coming months as the visiting vehicle schedule works to accommodate not only the comings and goings of the Russian Soyuz and Progress spacecraft, but also a Japanese Kounotori cargo spacecraft in September as well as the first uncrewed test flights of the Commercial Crew Program as early as Fall 2018.

Astronauts Release U.S. Spacecraft Completing Cargo Mission - YouTube

Video courtesy of NASA

The post Northrop Grumman’s OA-9 Cygnus leaves International Space Station appeared first on SpaceFlight Insider.

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An artist’s concept of the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
Credits: NASA

A cosmic neutrino detected by NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope was found to have originated in a gamma ray emitted by a supermassive black hole 3.7 billion light years away at the center of a galaxy in the constellation Orion.

The discovery, made by an international team of scientists, marks the first time a high-energy neutrino from beyond the Milky Way has been traced to its place of origin as well as the furthest any neutrino has been known to travel.

Neutrinos are high-energy, hard-to-catch particles likely produced in powerful cosmic events, such as supermassive black holes actively devouring matter and galaxy mergers. Because they travel at nearly the speed of light and do not interact with other matter, they are capable of traversing billions of light years.

By studying neutrinos, scientists gain insight into the processes that drive powerful cosmic events, including supernovae and black holes.

Gamma rays are the brightest and most energetic form of light, which is why scientists use them to trace the sources of neutrinos and cosmic rays.

“The most extreme cosmic explosions produce gravitational waves, and the most extreme cosmic accelerators produce high-energy neutrinos and cosmic rays,” explained Regina Caputo of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and analysis coordinator for the Fermi Large Area Telescope Collaboration. “Through Fermi, gamma rays are providing a bridge to each of these new cosmic signals.”

Scientists found this particular neutrino on September 22, 2017, using the National Science Foundation‘s (NSF) IceCube Neutrino Observatory at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. They then traced the neutrino to its origin in a gamma ray blast within the distant supermassive black hole using Fermi.

“Again, Fermi has helped make another giant leap in a growing field we call multimessenger astronomy. Neutrinos and gravitational waves deliver new kinds of information about the most extreme environments in the universe. But to understand what they’re telling us, we need to connect them to the ‘messenger’ astronomers know best–light,” emphasized Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s Astrophysics Division in Washington, DC.

IceCube tracked the neutrino, which hit Antarctica with 300 trillion electron volts. Its extremely high energy level meant it likely came from beyond our solar system. Its galaxy of origin, with which scientists are familiar, is a blazar, a galaxy with an extremely bright and active central supermassive black hole that blasts out jets of particles in opposite directions at nearly the speed of light.

Blazars have several million to several billion times the mass of our Sun. Scientists find them when one of the jets they emit travels in the direction of Earth.

Yasuyuki Tanaka of Japan’s Hiroshima University was the first scientist to link the neutrino to a specific blazar known as TXS 0506+056, which has recently shown increased activity. Fermi keeps track of approximately 2,000 blazars.

Followup observations of TXS 0506 were conducted with the Major Atmospheric Gamma Imaging Cherenkov Telescopes (MAGIC) NASA’s Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory, and various other observatories.

Two papers on the discovery have been published here and here in the journal Science.

NASA's Fermi Links Cosmic Neutrino to Monster Black Hole - YouTube

Video courtesy of NASA Goddard

The post Fermi Telescope discovers neutrino’s origin as supermassive black hole appeared first on SpaceFlight Insider.

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Perspective view of Pluto’s highest mountains, Tenzing Montes, along the western margins of Sputnik Planitia, which rise 3-6 kilometers above the smooth nitrogen-ice plains in the foreground. The mounded area behind the mountains at upper left is the Wright Mons edifice interpreted to a volcanic feature composed of ices. Area shown is approximately 500 kilometers across. Image and Caption Credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute/Paul Schenk

Researchers on NASA’s New Horizons team have put together global topographic maps of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, which vividly depict the stunning variety of terrains on both worlds.

In a labor intensive project, a science team led by Paul Schenk of the Universities Space Research Association’s Lunar and Planetary Science Institute compiled all the images and data captured by the spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) and Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) and assembled mosaics of the two worlds, carefully aligning surface features in overlapping photos. Through digital analysis of stereo images taken by both instruments, they made topographic maps for each region, then integrated these to produce complete topographic maps for both Pluto and Charon.

Perspective view of mountain ridges and volcanic plains on Pluto’s large moon Charon. The ridges reach heights of 4 to 5 kilometers above the local surface and are formed when the icy outer crust of Charon fractured into large blocks. The smoother plains to the right are resurfaced by icy flows, possibly composed of ammonia-hydrate lavas that were extruded onto the surface when the older block sank into the interior. Area shown is approximately 250 kilometers across. Image and Caption Credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute/Paul Schenk

Returning the data captured during the July 2015 flyby of the Pluto system took approximately 1.5 years. As each new group of images arrived, mission scientists improved the quality of their Pluto and Charon geographic and topographic maps.

“This was one of the most complex yet most exciting planetary mapping projects I’ve had the pleasure to be involved with,” Schenk said. “Every time new images came down, something new would be revealed.”

The just-released maps depict every part of the two worlds lit by the Sun in the highest possible resolution, with individual elevations and a wide variety of terrains visible. Because some areas on Pluto and Charon were not illuminated by the Sun during the flyby, New Horizons was able to gather data on only 78 percent of Pluto and 45 percent of Charon.

On the new map, viewers can see Pluto’s Tenzig Montes, the highest mountain range on the planet located to the left of Sputnik Planitia, the nitrogen glacier that constitutes the left side of Pluto’s iconic heart feature. The mountains’ tallest peaks reach 3.7 miles (six kilometers) above the range’s base, and their slopes are 40 degrees or greater.

These mountains’ heights confirm scientists’ theory that they are composed of water ice, the only ice on Pluto powerful enough to hold them up. Pluto’s other volatile ices, methane and nitrogen ice, are not strong to hold up such structures and keep them from collapsing.

Large scale features that were not immediately clear in the global mosaic map are revealed in the topographic one. For example, the latter shows that the center of Sputnik Planitia and its edges have different ice depths. At the center of the 625-mile (1,000-kilometer) glacier, the ice is 1.5 miles (2.5 kilometers) deep while at its outer edges, the ice is 2.2 miles (3.5 kilometers) below Pluto’s mean elevation, the equivalent of sea level on Earth.

Near Sputnik Planitia’s western edge, the topographic map shows an area of highly eroded ridges and troughs stretching north to south for approximately 2,000 miles (3,000 kilometers). This longest-known feature on Pluto is evidence of extensive ancient fracturing. Why such fracturing occurred only in this region and not on other parts of Pluto remains a mystery.

On Charon, the topographic map shows mountain ridges with heights ranging from 2.5 to 3.1 miles (four and five kilometers) and very deep troughs extending 8.7 miles (14 kilometers) near the north pole and also between the northern and southern plains. Blocky and fractured terrains in the north could be the results of ancient cryovolcanism that transported the rocks from the large moon’s deep interior.

The mountain ridges and fractured regions on Charon are believed to be the results of the freezing of an ancient subsurface ocean.

Both topographic maps have been archived with NASA’s Planetary Data System and are available to scientists and members of the public. Two papers on the topographic map were published in the journal Icarus, one on June 11 and the other on July 3.

The post Topographic maps reveal surface details on Pluto and Charon appeared first on SpaceFlight Insider.

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SpaceIL’s spacecraft at a clean room. Photo Credit: SpaceIL.

SpaceIL has unveiled its plan to land an unmanned spacecraft on the Moon in early 2019. The company announced that the mission would be launched by a Falcon 9 rocket in December 2018.

SpaceIL participated in the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition, which offered $20 million for landing on the Moon. However, despite the fact that the contest expired in March 2018 with the prize for lunar landing unclaimed, some participants, including SpaceIL, decided to continue their efforts to send a spacecraft to the Moon.

The new plan was presented by SpaceIL on July 10, 2018, during a press conference at the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) MBT Space facility in Yehud, Israel. The mission was introduced as a joint SpaceIL-IAI project and company leaders emphasized its importance for the country.

“After eight challenging years, I am filled with pride that the first Israeli spacecraft, which is in its final construction and testing phases, will soon be making its way to the Moon,” said Morris Kahn, SpaceIL president. “The launch of the first Israeli spacecraft will fill Israel, in its 70th year, with pride. It is a national accomplishment that will put us on the world’s space map.”

The plane envisions launching a car-sized lander atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster as a secondary payload. After separation from the rocket at an altitude of about 37,282 miles (60,000 kilometers), it is expected to commence a two-month long journey to the Moon. Landing is scheduled for Feb. 13, 2019.

SpaceIL’s lunar spacecraft weighs some 1,322 pounds (600 kilograms) and has dimensions of 4.9 by 6.5 feet (1.5 by 2 meters). If the mission succeeds, it would be the smallest spacecraft to land on the Moon.

The spacecraft is planned to carry an Israeli flag to the Moon and take photos as well as video of the landing site. It would also conduct scientific research focused on measuring the Moon’s magnetic field.

SpaceIL’s project to develop a lunar lander dates back to 2013. The construction of the spacecraft started in 2017 and so far it has passed numerous tests, including the test of the landing sensor in June 2018. Further examinations of the spacecraft are scheduled in order to fully prepare it for its launch in December.

“SpaceIL, in collaboration with IAI, is embarking on the final leg of its complex mission to land the first Israeli spacecraft on the Moon,” said Ido Anteby, SpaceIL CEO. “In the coming months the spacecraft will undergo a series of intensive checks and tests at IAI, to prove that it will withstand the launch, flight and landing conditions.”

The post Israeli company eyes Moon landing in early 2019 appeared first on SpaceFlight Insider.

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