Friday December 15, 2017
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Space Jam: Let the exploration begin with novel space missions

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rainbow-nebula

By Gaurav Sharma

Dazzling images of icy plains, enigmatic clusters of mounds, and a heart shaped region holding a huge concentration of carbon monoxide set hearts roaring as NASA’s New Horizons Mission flew past the eccentric dwarf planet Pluto.

As more and more data keeps pouring in over the next 16 months, the inquisitive human eye can hope to discover the mysterious aura of the frozen planet along with the mythical nature of its “disappearing atmosphere”.

However, NASA’s epic Pluto mission is just one of the many eclectic assortments of space exploration that the scientific arena has lined up for the curious space observers in its wide gamut of astronomical odysseys.

The rapid rise of technology in the post-modern world has further led to a surge in space exploration missions. Innovative private spaceflight companies such as SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Orbital Sciences, Blue Origin and Bigelow Aerospace are fueling the revolutionary transformation in space technology.

Here is telescopic peek of the future foray into dark space exploration:

EXOMARS

People had been viewing Mars–as a red dot brimming with canals and frost–for eternity. After the relay of zoomed-in images by NASA’s Mariner 4 in 1965, the world was caught in rapt attention.

Credits: http://www.google.co.in/imgres?imgurl=http://www.esa.int/var/esa/storage/images/esa_multimedia/images/2003/03/exomars_logo/9572705-3-eng-GB/ExoMars_logo.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.esa.int/spaceinimages/Images/2003/03/ExoMars_logo&h=395&w=2023&tbnid=P1bw8bOfDZdwrM:&docid=njR7fxPf1BIjhM&ei=-PCpVcSFCYKUuQSK_bGYCQ&tbm=isch&ved=0CBsQMygAMABqFQoTCMThmcmF5MYCFQJKjgodin4Mkw

Thought to have been home to life like its cousin Earth, Mars is set for a rediscovery, this time through the European Space Agency’s ExoMars mission. The mission is scheduled for next year and will sample the Martian atmosphere. However, the center of attraction will be the ExoMars Rover which will land on the Red Planet in 2018.

The ExoMars rover will be superior to the Curiosity rover, which was only able to drill two meters below the surface to search for organic matter. A riverbed which was thought to have been a watery landscape holding sediments of life will likely be the landing site of the rover.

ORION Spacecraft

Credits: https://www.google.co.in/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=images&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0CAYQjB1qFQoTCPvwlIyG5MYCFQ9xjgodamUBmg&url=https%3A%2F%2Fen.wikipedia.org%2Fwiki%2FOrion_(spacecraft)&ei=hPGpVfueI4_iuQTqyoXQCQ&bvm=bv.98197061,d.c2E&psig=AFQjCNE8KEIvcNueEMU_kT7NI62TUffA0w&ust=1437285523978268 Designed with the aim of taking humans deeper into space than ever before, NASA’s Orion spacecraft will begin its first manned flight in 2021. The spacecraft is bigger and far more advanced than Apollo, the aircraft credited with landing humans on the Moon for the first time in history.

The spacecraft might visit asteroids to collect samples in the mid 2020s, with the ultimate aim of landing on Mars during the mid 2030s.

However, the conundrum of the rapid deterioration of human body in space will remain a contentious issue. In space, the solar radiation is high and low gravity is known to cause degradation of bone and muscle strength.

JUICE

Moving beyond the red planet to the largest planet Jupiter, the European Space Agency’s Juice mission will be initiated in 2022 with an eye to explore the icy Jovian moons.

The spacecraft will make a string of flybys of Callisto, Europa and Ganymede (the largest moon in the solar system). All three moons are likely places for life in the solar system to thrive as the thick ice crusts covering their surfaces are believed to hold liquid oceans of water.

Using radial imaging, the spacecraft will beam back images of the fractured lunar surfaces, closely resembling Antarctica’s subglacial lakes.

James Webb Telescope 

In April this year, the Hubble space telescope–one of the largest and most versatile telescopes–celCredits: https://www.google.co.in/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=images&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0CAYQjB1qFQoTCJWxiNGH5MYCFQu-jgoduzsIqA&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.spacetelescope.org%2Fimages%2Fjwst_poster01%2F&ei=IfOpVdWcH4v8ugS796DACg&bvm=bv.98197061,d.c2E&psig=AFQjCNGjDdIYInuysAMCfj3ZoDocwaECYg&ust=1437287558333072ebrated its silver jubilee. In 2018, the James Webb Telescope will become its natural successor, providing a much more encompassing visual experience for astronomers.

Featuring a 6.5 meter mirror and a tennis court-size sunshield, the telescope will be the largest one to be launched in low Earth orbit.

The Webb telescope will focus on infrared, thereby allowing the viewers to gaze back at the primeval stars, the stars and galaxies existing before the Big Bang. This will bring a sea change in the way astronomers have been viewing the planets until now. Direct observations of atmosphere and whether it contains air, water, methane, etc. will become a reality.

Solar Orbiter

Set to be launched in 2018, the European Space Agency’s sun observing satellite will travel closer to the sun than any other spacecraft yet flown, reaching jaw dropping temperatures of about 600C.

The satellite will circle into orbit about 21 million miles surface of Mercury. Through an onboard camera designed to showcase images spanning just 110 miles (the Sun’s visible disc is about 800,000 miles wide!), the orbiter will provide close-up views of the polar regions of the Sun, an impossible view from the Earth.

Apart from revealingCredits: https://www.google.co.in/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=images&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0CAYQjB1qFQoTCNzzlPyD5MYCFY0Ljgod9tsILQ&url=http%3A%2F%2Fphys.org%2Fnews%2F2014-06-solar-orbiter-shield-sun.html&ei=Su-pVdymCY2XuAT2t6PoAg&bvm=bv.98197061,d.c2E&psig=AFQjCNFVP7USNsWafno_ZXchIvz33o9_aA&ust=1437286586532574 the Sun’s strange landscape, swirling gases, and violent  flares in unprecedented detail, the rare images will help uncover the mystery of its powerful magnetic field and the riddle of what happens when the Sun’s magnetic field flips 180 degrees, a phenomenon which occurred in  2013.

With space exploration gearing up for intense activity with an aim to break old barriers and reach newer frontiers, space aficionados and sky gazers alike can expect a visual orgasmic treat. After all, what is exploration if not an exciting, thrilling adventure?

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NASA’s plan on getting Martian samples to Earth

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NASA brings Martian samples to Earth from Mars.
NASA brings Martian samples to Earth from Mars. IANS
  • NASA plans on getting Martian samples to Earth from Mars
  • To know if life existed anywhere other than on Earth

Washington, Dec 11: (IANS) NASA has revealed how it plans to bring back Martian samples to Earth for the first time with the help of its next rover mission to the Red Planet, Mars 2020.

After landing on Mars, a drill will capture rock cores, while a caching system with a miniature robotic arm will seal up these samples. Then, they will be deposited on the Martian surface for possible pickup by a future mission, NASA said.

“Whether life ever existed beyond Earth is one of the grand questions humans seek to answer,” said Ken Farley of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

“What we learn from the samples collected during this mission has the potential to address whether we’re alone in the universe,” Farley said.

Mars 2020 relies heavily on the system designs and spare hardware previously created for Mars Science Laboratory’s Curiosity rover, which landed in 2012.

Despite its similarities to Mars Science Laboratory, the new mission has very different goals – it will seek signs of ancient life by studying the terrain that is now inhospitable, but once held flowing rivers and lakes, more than 3.5 billion years ago.

To achieve these new goals, the rover has a suite of cutting-edge science instruments.

It will seek out biosignatures on a microbial scale.

An X-ray spectrometer will target spots as small as a grain of table salt, while an ultraviolet laser will detect the “glow” from excited rings of carbon atoms.

A ground-penetrating radar will look under the surface of Mars, mapping layers of rock, water and ice up to 10 metres deep, depending on the material.

The rover is getting some upgraded Curiosity hardware, including colour cameras, a zoom lens and a laser that can vaporise rocks and soil to analyse their chemistry, NASA said.

The mission will also undertake a marathon sample hunt.

The rover team will try to drill at least 20 rock cores, and possibly as many as 30 or 40, for possible future return to Earth, NASA said.

Site selection has been another milestone for the mission. In February, the science community narrowed the list of potential landing sites from eight to three.

All three sites have rich geology and may potentially harbour signs of past microbial life. But a final landing site decision is still more than a year away.

“In the coming years, the 2020 science team will be weighing the advantages and disadvantages of each of these sites,” Farley said.

“It is by far the most important decision we have ahead of us,” Farley said.

The mission is set to launch in July/August 2020. (IANS)

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NASA’s human ‘computer’ is still working at age 80

Sue Finely calculated rocket trajectories by hand

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Sue Finley still works at NASA
Sue Finley, 80, is still working at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. She started there in 1958 as a human "computer," calculating trajectories for rockets. VOA

Sue Finley, now 80 years old and NASA’s longest-serving female employee, recalls her early days with the space agency when she worked as a human “computer,” calculating rocket trajectories by hand at a time when computers were huge and expensive to operate.

Finley arrived at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, in January 1958, one week before the U.S. Army launched Explorer 1, America’s first earth satellite.

“It was a very big deal,” she recalls of the launch, a response to the launches a few months earlier of the first satellites, Sputnik 1 and 2, from the former Soviet Union.

She was at JPL for Pioneer 1, the first satellite sent aloft by the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in late 1958, which marked the beginning of the international space race.

Unmanned space probes

Since then, Finley has had a role in nearly every U.S. unmanned space probe, and some missions of other nations.

There were failures to overcome and spectacular successes, but always new goals as scientists expanded our knowledge of the earth and solar system.

“We were certainly proud,” she says of NASA accomplishments, “but you just go to the next thing.”

Finley has been through several career changes with the space agency, one of the most important when NASA phased out human computers, moving, initially, to simple electronic versions.

“We got little tiny computers,” she recalls. “One I had 16 wires, jumper cables to code with. One had 10 pegboards that you programmed with.”

As modern computers took over navigational tasks, Finley developed and tested software as a subsystem engineer.

Among her career highlights: the Vega mission, a Soviet-French collaboration with Venus, and Halley’s Comet, which received navigational help from NASA and dropped balloons into the atmosphere of Venus.

She had to change the software for the antenna that tracked the mission, “and it worked,” Finley recalls. “Everything worked. That’s what was so exciting!”

Finley has worked since 1980 on NASA’s Deep Space Network, which coordinates satellite facilities in California, Spain and Australia that allow communication with space probes.

Highlights of NASA career

Career highlights include developing software that generates audio tones sent back from spacecraft, informing engineers on the ground what is happening in space. It was first developed for the Mars missions.

Each tone has a meaning that communicates data, noted one of Finley’s colleagues, Stephen Lichten.

“If a parachute opened, it would send a tone,” Lichten, manager for special projects for the Deep Space Network, said.

“The spacecraft lets go of its heat shield, and it would send a different tone, and so engineers like Sue were here listening for those special frequencies which told them the spacecraft was telling them what it has just done,” he said.

He notes that Finley also helped develop communication arrays that combine multiple antennas to act in unison and other advances that now crucial to space missions.

Lichten once shared an office with Finley and says she inspired her younger colleagues.

“There was a parade of people coming in constantly, to ask her advice, to ask her questions,” he recalls. “This was during the Venus balloon mission days and I realized that Sue was regarded as sort of a guru at JPL.”

Finley has been involved with nearly every advance in space communications in recent decades, and she continues her work today, Lichten said.

There are many more women at NASA today than there were when she started, and Finley said she tells young women to be inquisitive.

“I tell them to never be afraid to ask questions, never be afraid to say you don’t know,” she said.

After nearly six decades at the space agency, a mother of two grown sons and a mentor to her colleagues, Finley has no plans of retiring.

“There’s nothing else I want to do,” she said. “And so far, they need me.”

As they have since the earliest days of the space agency. (VOA)

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20 Years of Changing Seasons on Earth Captured into 2½ Minutes by NASA

NASA captured 20 years of changing seasons in a striking new global map of the home planet that shows Earth's fluctuations as seen from space

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The Changing seasons of the Earth
The Changing seasons of the Earth has been captured by NASA. Wikimedia.

NASA captured 20 years of changing seasons on Earth in a striking new global map of the home planet.

The data visualization, released this week, shows Earth’s fluctuations as seen from space.

The polar ice caps and snow cover are shown ebbing and flowing with the seasons. The varying ocean shades of blue, green, red and purple depict the abundance — or lack — of undersea life.

“It’s like watching the Earth breathe. It’s really remarkable,” said NASA oceanographer Jeremy Werdell, who took part in the project.

Two decades — from September 1997 to this past September — are crunched into 2½ minutes of viewing.

Werdell finds the imagery mesmerizing. “It’s like all of my senses are being transported into space, and then you can compress time and rewind it, and just continually watch this kind of visualization,” he said Friday.

Werdell said the visualization shows spring coming earlier and autumn lasting longer in the Northern Hemisphere. Also noticeable to him is the receding of the Arctic ice caps over time — and, though less obvious, the Antarctic, too.

On the sea side, Werdell was struck by “this hugely productive bloom of biology” that exploded in the Pacific along the equator from 1997 to 1998 — when a water-warming El Nino merged into cooling La Nina. This algae bloom is evident by a line of bright green.

In considerably smaller Lake Erie, more and more contaminating algae blooms are apparent — appearing red and yellow.

All this data can provide resources for policymakers as well as commercial fishermen and many others, according to Werdell.

Programmer Alex Kekesi of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland said it took three months to complete the visualization, using satellite imagery.

Just like our Earth, the visualization will continually change, officials said, as computer systems improve, new remote-sensing satellites are launched and more observations are made. (VOA)