PSLV project director B Jayakumar. | Photo Credit: V. Ganesan
The next PSLV-C37 that will put into orbit a record number of 83 satellites is being scheduled for launch on January 27, said PSLV project director B Jayakumar.
Sharing the dais with Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre director K Sivan who came here to receive the 100th nozzle for a PSLV rocket from city based Resins and Allied Productions Mr Jayakumar said that six PSLVs had been launched in 2016.
Mr Sivan said that ISRO was planning to launch 12 to 18 PSLVs in a year. He said the 100th nozzle that was custom-built by Vijayawada based industry Resins and Allied Products (RAP) would be used in the historic PSLV that would launch a record 83 satellites. He said there was demand from foreign countries to send their satellites on PSLV rockets because they were launched as per schedule and were reliable.
Quelle: The Hindu
PSLV-C37 launch likely in February
The Satish Dhawan Space Centre (SDSC) in Sriharikota is making preparations for the launch of 103 satellites into space on board the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV-C37) most probably in the first week of February.
It is learnt that the Mission Readiness Review (MRR) meeting held at SHAR has agreed upon taking up the mission as per the plan.
The integration of the launch vehicle on the first launch pad at SHAR is progressing, even as scientists are awaiting the arrival of the satellites for speeding up the arrangements for the final launch.
Among the 103 satellites, 100 are from the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the US put together. The remaining are two nano satellites belonging to the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) and one Cartosat-2 series indigenous satellite. Once this launch is completed, India will occupy the top place among the countries that have sent the highest number of satellites into orbit.
Quelle: The Hindu
How ISRO plans to launch 103 satellites on a single rocket
BLAST-OFF:In this photo dated December 7, 2016, PSLV C36 lifts off from the space centre in Sriharikota.— Photo: PTI
The mission will break Russia’s record of sending 37 satellites at one go
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) will set a record when it launches 103 satellites in one go on a single rocket in the first week of February.
Explaining how all the satellites will be placed in orbit, Dr. K. Sivan, Director of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), Thiruvananthapuram, said: “The satellites will be separated from the launch vehicle in different directions. The separation angle and time of separation will be such that one satellite will not collide with another.”
The satellite separated from the launch vehicle will have a relative velocity of one metre per second. So after 1,000 seconds the distance between a satellite and the rocket will be 1,000 metres. “The satellite that gets launched first will move at a relatively faster velocity than the next satellite that is launched. Due to different relative velocities, the distance between the satellites will increases continuously but the orbit will be the same,” he said.
“When the vehicle reaches the orbital condition, we will wait for the disturbances to die down before the preparation for separation begins,” Dr. Sivan explained. At an orbital altitude of around 500 km, it would take the vehicle 90 minutes to complete one orbit. “So we have sufficient time to launch all the 103 satellites,” he added.
Even one degree difference in separation angle combined with relative velocity will ensure that no two satellites would collide. “The satellites will be injected into orbit at different locations at different angles, at different times and different orientations,” Dr. Sivan said.
In June last year, ISRO launched 20 satellites in one go. It took about 26 minutes to launch all the 20 satellites. In 2008, ISRO launched 10 satellites in a single mission. The highest number of satellites launched in a single mission so far has been 37 by Russia in 2014; NASA launched 29 satellites in one go in 2013.
ISRO’s workhorse PSLV (C37) with 103 satellites will be launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh. With the exception of three satellites from India, the rest are from other countries.
Our Prototypes column introduces new vehicle concepts and presents visuals from designers who illustrate the ideas. Some of them will be extensions of existing concepts, others will be new, some will be production ready, and others really far-fetched.
The Cycler is a novel spacecraft that would travel between Earth and the moon to ferry people, supplies, and equipment to various moon bases. Once its reliability and safety are proven, it would be used on missions to asteroids, Phobos, and Mars.
Renderings provided by Charles Bombardier
Last summer, Imaginactive released the Solar Express space train concept, which reduced travel time between Earth and Mars . Creating a space train is not a new idea. In fact, Dr. Buzz Aldrin is working on a similar concept that would help us colonize the solar system in different stages.
The Cycler’s largest part would be Bigelow Aerospace’s inflatable B330modules, which would be linked together to form a series of three space wagons. These modules would be attached together by an interface modules (IM) that would each include lateral ‘Jefferies’ tubes connectors. Each Cycler would be manned by four astronauts and would each be capable of transporting up to 12 passengers, most of whom would probably be space tourists going on the six-day trip around the moon.
The interface modules would make it possible for astronauts to move easily between each B330 habitat, access other spacecrafts, or go out on space walks to service the Cycler. Each assembly would be equipped with two Dragon modules on its side, which would serve as both command centres, radiation safe havens, and emergency escape vehicles.
The first B330 could be used as private sleeping quarters for the passengers. The middle module could be used for daily activities, as a viewing lounge, and a dinning area. The third one would serve as storage and the crew’s sleeping quarters.
Behind the three B330s there would be a 100-foot-long open space cargo hold. This structure would be used to secure cargo brought to orbit by heavy lift rockets such as Space X’s Falcon Heavy or Blue Origin’s New Glenn. The Cycler would circle the earth in orbit and rendezvous with the cargo to bring it on board by means of a translational robotic arm like the Canadarm2. Then it would leave orbit to pursue its course toward the moon.
When Space X’s Falcon Heavy rocket leaves Earth with its 22-Metric-ton payload, it’s going at an astounding 40,000 km/h. The second stage then burns more fuel and positions the vehicle in a geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO), at which point its orbital speed would be reduced to 8,000 km/h or less.
The payload transfer procedure would take place in GTO at an altitude of 35 km and would take 30 minutes. When the Cycler exits Earth’s orbit, it’s moving at the same constant speed of 8,000km/h, so it would need approximately two days to travel to the Moon’s orbit.
To push the Cycler a master rocket would be attached on one end of the spacecraft. To control and change the direction of the Cycler, smaller rocket thrusters would be mounted on each side. The smaller thrusters could be mounted on motorized hinges to optimize fuel burn. One question that comes to mind is whether a second rocket should be mounted on the Cycler’s nose to help reduce its speed frequently.
To land material on the moon, a lunar landing vehicle equipped with new ‘Xaxxon’(Hypothetical name) rockets could be designed and built by Masten Space Systems. This vehicle’s purpose would be to rendezvous with the Cycler, pick up cargo ejected during a lunar fly-by, and land it safely on the moon’s surface using existing rocket landers.
What it’s used for
To quote Buzz Aldrin, ‘a unified space vision is needed for space exploration to establish a permanent human presence on Mars. The proposed architecture establishes pathways of progressive missions to cis-lunar space, asteroids, Phobos, and eventually to the surface of Mars.’
I believe that a spacecraft like the Cycler could serve as a modular prototype to test multiple technologies assembled together and demonstrate on a small scale that this vision can be accomplished. It would also become a way to ‘kickstart’ the space tourism industry and develop space travel.
I would like to thank Dr. Rebecca Farr and Dr. Oliver Peraldi who both helped me structure the Cycler concept. I would also like to thank Ray Mattison from Design Eye-Q who created the renderings of the Cycler. Mattison is based near Duluth, Minn. He studied at the College for Creative Studies. Mattison also created the images of the Skreemr supersonic aircraft concept and the Ramblerdesert trike.
The launch set for November 20 was rescheduled to allow changeout of suspect integrated electronics assemblies on the twin solid rocket boosters.
Fifth mission dedicated to the Department of Defense.
On November 22, 1989, at 7:23:30pm (EST), 5 astronauts were launched into space aboard the Space Shuttle Orbiter Discovery for the 5th Department of Defense mission, STS-33. Photographed from left to right are Kathryn C. Thornton, mission specialist 3; Manley L. (Sonny) Carter, mission specialist 2; Frederick D. Gregory, commander; John E. Blaha, pilot; and F. Story Musgrave, mission specialist 1.
Creating history:The name plaque plan is part of a crowd-funding effort by TeamIndus.— File Photo: Sudhakara JainSudhakara Jain
A Bengaluru start-up says donors to its moon lander project will be immortalised
Indians are being offered the opportunity to leave their name on the moon, for a price.
Space start-up TeamIndus will get the names of public ‘donors’ micro-engraved on a small-sized aluminium object, which will be placed on the lunar surface when its lander descends on the moon. The bill: Rs. 500 per name.
The mission, planned for December 28 this year on the PSLV rocket, will travel the 3.84 lakh kilometres from earth to make a soft landing on the moon on January 26, 2018. Its robotic rover will send back photos and videos.
The name plaque plan is part of a crowd-funding effort, says Sheelika Ravishankar, Jedi Master - Marketing and Outreach, of the Bengaluru-based start-up.
On lunar belly
The lunarcraft will land in a large dusty plain on the sun-lit lunar belly, the Mare Imbrium (Latin for Sea of Showers.) “In the future, when people start travelling to the moon, who knows, they may find this box and spot the names of their ancestors,” Ms. Ravishankar told The Hindu . Some 10,000 people have sent in their names.
Future mooncombers may find other artefacts too: U.S., Soviet, European and Japanese spacecraft debris; rovers that died, such as the latest, China’s Chang’e-3. In 1971, astronauts of Apollo-15 left an unauthorised statuette of the ‘fallen astronaut’. Apollo-14’s moonwalker Alan Shepard teed off a few golf balls.
On November 14, 2008, ISRO’s orbiting Chandrayaan-1 sent down a 35-kg Moon Impact Probe, bearing the tricolour, national emblem and the words satyameva jayate .
Ms. Ravishankar said public funding would be the third pillar of financial support for the $65 million mission. It is being called ‘ har indian ka moonshot ’ (every Indian’s moonshot.)
The launch set for October 12 was rescheduled due to a faulty main engine controller on number the two main engine. The launch set for October 17 was rescheduled due to weather constraints for a return-to-launch-site landing at KSC's Shuttle Landing Facility.
The primary payload, Galileo/Jupiter spacecraft and attached Inertial Upper Stage (IUS), was deployed six hours, 30 minutes into the flight. IUS stages fired, placing Galileo on trajectory for six-year trip to Jupiter via gravitational boosts from Venus and Earth and possible observational brushes with asteroids Gaspra and Ida. Secondary payloads included Shuttle Solar Backscatter Ultraviolet (SSBUV) experiment carried in cargo bay, and in crew cabin, Growth Hormone Crystal Distribution (GHCD); Polymer Morphology (PM), Sensor Technology Experiment (STEX); Mesoscale Lightning Experiment (MLE); IMAX camera; Shuttle Student Involvement Program (SSIP) experiment that investigated ice crystal formation in zero gravity; and ground-based Air Force Maui Optical Site (AMOS) experiment.
The STS-34 crew portrait includes 5 astronauts. Pictured left to right are Shannon W. Lucid, mission specialist; Donald E. Williams, commander; Franklin R. Chang-Diaz, mission specialist; Michael J. McCulley, pilot; and Ellen S. Baker, mission specialist. The crew of 5 launched aboard the Space Shuttle Orbiter Atlantis on October 18, 1989 at 12:53:40pm (EDT). The primary payload was the Galileo Jupiter Spacecraft and attached inertial upper stage (IUS). Deployed 6 hours and 30 minutes into the flight, the IUS stages fired, boosting Galileo on trajectory for a 6 year trip to Jupiter.
Liftoff of STS-34 Atlantis, carrying the Galileo spacecraft and its Inertial Upper Stage (IUS) booster on October 18, 1989 at 12:35 p.m. EDT. P-35036BC.
The shuttle mission was commanded by Donald E. Williams and piloted by Michael J. McCulley. Mission specialists were Shannon W. Lucid, Franklin W. Chang-Diaz, and Ellen S. Baker.
NASA policy in the early 1980's was to launch all spacecraft from the shuttle, unlike earlier, expendable-rocket-launched interplanetary missions such as Voyager (which visited Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune).
Initially, it seemed as though Galileo's launch was fated to be delayed. Worries over whether Hurricane Hugo would come onshore at the Kennedy Space Center mounted until, at the last moment, the destructive force of the storm swept north of the launch site, allowing engineers to relax. Then, the day before the rescheduled launch, a 7.1 earthquake, centered just 25 kilometers (15 miles) south of Sunnyvale, California, caused evacuation of the Inertial Upper Stage control center there, which was crucial to mission operations. The control center crew recovered as the night progressed, allowing the countdown to continue.
It wasn't a trivial matter to get Atlantis and its launch vehicle-2,056,277 kilograms (4,523,810 pounds) at launch-into orbit. Each of the three main engines in tail of the shuttle can provide almost a half-million pounds of thrust. The thrust to weight ratio for these engines (about 70:1) is the best in the world-each engine weighs less than 3,200 kilograms (7,000 pounds) but puts out the power equivalent of seven Hoover Dams! The shuttle experiences a maximum of 3 g's of gravity (that is, three times the gravitational force that we feel here on Earth) during ascent; due to vibration, loads on parts of the spacecraft may exceed 10 g's.
Since the shuttle needs to have a daylight landing opportunity at the trans-Atlantic landing abort sites, and since there are performance constraints on Galileo's inertial upper stage, spacecraft liftoff could only occur during certain periods of time. The launch opportunity opened on Oct. 12, 1989 for a 10-minute period. The launch window then grew each day, reaching a maximum of 47 minutes on Nov. 2. The window then decreased each day through the remainder of the launch opportunity, which ended on November 21, 1995.
Aiming at Jupiter
To get to Jupiter, Galileo had to be inserted into its interplanetary trajectory at the correct time so that, when it arrives at Jupiter's orbit, Jupiter is right there (and not, say, half an orbit away!). This task might be compared to throwing a water balloon at someone running in front of you. You have to lead the aim point by just the right amount to hit the target; if you aim at where the person is right when you throw the balloon, you'll end up missing the target. If an interplanetary spacecraft misses its launch opportunity, we have to wait for the orbital motion of the planets to realign them into the "correct" geometry for a successful launch opportunity.
Because Galileo used a VEEGA (for Venus-Earth-Earth Gravity Assist) trajectory to fly to Jupiter (rather than a direct trajectory), its launch opportunities did not repeat at regular intervals the way direct trajectories do. This is because there are many ways to combine a launch from Earth with one Venus and two Earth flybys to get to Jupiter. The next three VEEGA opportunities to Jupiter after the one Galileo used occurred in November 1989 and May/June 1991. There were actually two different opportunities in the May/June 1991 time period.
Atlantis Delivers Galileo to Space
Space Shuttle Atlantis lifted off from Launch Pad 39B at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 12:53 p.m. EDT, Oct. 18, 1989 on the STS-34 mission. Atlantis carried a crew of five and the spacecraft Galileo which was deployed on a six-year voyage to Jupiter.
STS-34 Crew Portrait
The five STS-34 astronauts for pose for an in-space crew "portrait." From left to right are Commander Donald E. Williams, Mission Specialists Ellen S. Baker and Shannon W. Lucid, Pilot Michael J. McCulley and in front, Mission Specialist Franklin R. Chang-Diaz.
STS034-10-015 (18-23 Oct. 1989) --- Astronaut Franklin R. Chang-Diaz performs an eye examination on astronaut Ellen S. Baker, both STS-34 mission specialists, on the middeck of the Earth-orbiting space shuttle Atlantis.
Deployment of Galileo and the IUS from the cargo bay of STS-34 Atlantis at 7:15 p.m. EDT on October 18, 1989. P-35213
Mission Specialist Shannon Lucid started Galileo's deployment by pushing a button; automatic systems then took over to separate Galileo from the shuttle. As deployment finished Commander Donald E. Williams declared "Galileo is on its way to another world. It's in the hands of the best flight controllers in this world-fly safely."
Beginning an hour after deployment, two rocket stages of Galileo's IUS booster fired one after the other. Galileo separated from the IUS's second stage at 9:05 p.m. and began its ballistic (or "freefall") flight to Venus for the first of three gravity assisted flybys, which would take Galileo to Jupiter.
Galileo was the second spacecraft to be launched using the IUS ( Magellan, the Venus radar mapping mission, was the first. Interestingly, even though Magellan was launched first (in April of 1989), Galileo reached Venus first.). Built by Boeing for the Air Force, the IUS, which uses solid (as opposed to liquid) fuel, gave Galileo an additional speed of 4.0 kilometers per second (8,640 miles per hour).
Astronomers Prepare to Search for Alien Life at Nearby 'Habitable' Exoplanet
The Wolf 1061 star system is only 14 light-years away and a team of astronomers are doing the groundwork to begin looking for signs of extraterrestrial biology in one of its planet's atmospheres.
As we continue the hunt for habitable worlds beyond our solar system, we're finding more and more candidates closer to home. There's even a small rocky exoplanet within the so-called "habitable zone" at Proxima Centauri, the dinky red dwarf star right next door. But there's more, and astronomers are beginning to identify which of these strange new worlds we could soon get a good look at with the next generation of advanced telescopes on Earth and in space.
One tantalizing potentially habitable exoplanet orbits the star Wolf 1061, only 14 light-years away — a distance that is practically on our galactic doorstep. Known to host three exoplanets, the Wolf 1061 system is interesting as it could be a target for NASA's James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) that is scheduled to launch in 2018. Sitting at the sun-Earth L2 point — an island of gravitational calm nearly one million miles away in Earth's shadow — the infrared JWST could be used to detect atmospheric components in worlds that could, hypothetically, support life. Other exoplanet-hunting projects are being launched, such as the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), the CHaracterising ExOPlanet Satellite (CHEOPS), and the PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars (PLATO) mission, that will greatly benefit from this advanced research to characterize the habitable potential of distant worlds.
Nestled in the habitable zones of stars, exoplanets (like the one in Wolf 1061) are thought to be neither too hot or too cold for liquid water to persist on their surfaces. On Earth, where there's liquid water, there's life, and if there's water on these worlds, there could be life there too. That's the basic logic, but there are many other factors at play that determine whether a planet can indeed support life. So if we can properly characterize exoplanetary atmospheres, we might, some day, be able to detect the chemicals that may reveal information about any "biomarkers" that may be present — chemicals that reveal the presence of biological processes. As Wolf 1061 hosts a small rocky exoplanet (called Wolf 1061c) within its habitable zone, it is one of the closest exoplanetary locations where we could uncover this biological evidence.
Working with researchers at Tennessee State University and in Geneva, Switzerland, Kane's team took precise measurements of the Wolf 1061 system to calculate the extent of its habitable zone, stellar activity and planetary orbits. Interestingly, Wolf 1061c has a chaotic orbit that is heavily influenced by the gravity of the other planets in the system, causing it to lurch sometimes closer to the star and at other times further away. It also occupies the inside edge of the star's habitable zone, which poses a quandary for its true habitable potential.
Venus, for example, lies within the inside edge of the sun's habitable zone, yet Venus is anything but "habitable" — despite being approximately Earth-sized. The toxic and thick Venusian atmosphere is the consequence of a runaway greenhouse effect where too much energy has been trapped by the atmosphere, causing it to heat up to lead-boiling temperatures. Though it may have once been a more temperate world, any water that once existed on its surface has been broken down into its component hydrogen and oxygen atoms. The only regions of Venus that are remotely "Earth-like" are high up in Venus' atmosphere — leading to speculative ideas that floating lifeforms may be present, or that humans may one day inhabit Venus in "cloud cities" that float high above the crushing lower atmospheric pressures.
Now that we've found Wolf 1061c, perhaps it is also an "exo-Venus", though the variability in its orbit may create bursts of global cooling followed by intense warming. "It could cause the frequency of the planet freezing over or heating up to be quite severe," said Kane in a statement.
Like the vast majority of worlds found within stars' habitable zones, Wolf 1061c's Earth-like qualities may be limited to its size and approximate orbital distance from its star — but that doesn't mean it can't host extraterrestrial life, it just means it will likely be very different life to what we are accustomed to on Earth.
SpaceX Targets Jan. 30 for 1st Launch from Historic NASA Pad
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX plans to break in its new launchpad at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) just after midnight on Jan. 30 with a Falcon 9 rocket ride for EchoStar Corp.
The launch will be SpaceX's first from NASA's historic Launch Complex 39, previously used by Saturn V moon rockets and the space shuttles.
In 2014, SpaceX signed a 20-year lease with NASA to use the pad for Falcon 9 and planned Falcon Heavy rockets. The company has not said how much it has spent on refurbishments.
Getting launchpad 39A ready for use took on fresh urgency after a Falcon 9 rocket went up in flames on what had been the company's primary launchpad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, located just south of KSC here on Florida's Space Coast.
The Sept. 1 accident destroyed the rocket and a $200 million Israeli communications satellite and heavily damaged the launchpad. SpaceX has not disclosed repair costs.
The accident also grounded the Falcon 9 fleet while investigators pieced together why the rocket exploded as it was being fueled for a routine, prelaunch engine test.
The company successfully returned to flight on Jan. 14, when a Falcon 9 blasted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California with 10 satellites for Iridium Communications Inc. During that mission, the rocket's first stage also came back down for a successful landing on a robotic "drone ship" stationed in the Pacific Ocean.
The Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees U.S. commercial launches, has not yet issued a license for the EchoStar flight and a possible landing of the Falcon 9’s first stage.
SpaceX to reopen legendary Kennedy launch site
Kennedy Space Center is getting back in the rocket business, now that SpaceX is back in business.
SpaceX is planning to launch its next rockets in the next few weeks from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A . They will be the first rockets to blast off from Kennedy Space Center since the space shuttle program was shut down more than five years ago.
NASA announced Thursday that the company will launch another cargo load to the International Space Station on a Falcon 9 rocket, sometime in February, from Launch Complex 39A. The exact date has not been set.
But that won’t even be the first. SpaceX also is planning a private launch from the site before then, though the company has not announced any details on the exact date or customer. The company is in line to lift two different commercial satellite missions into space this winter, for the Luxembourg SES-10 satellite, and for the Brazilian EchoStar satellite.
Whichever, it’ll be SpaceX’s first rocket launch from anywhere in Florida since the last Falcon 9 blew up on a launch pad at the adjacent Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in August, though SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket from California last weekend.
The location of the next blasts-off – 39A – signals both that SpaceX is back in business launching from Florida, and Kennedy Space Center is finally back in business hosting rocket launches.
Neither NASA nor SpaceX is saying much yet about the grand reopening though.
Launch Complex 39A is legendary. It’s where about half of the Saturn V rockets carrying Apollo launches, including the Apollo 11 moon mission of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins began. It’s where most of the space shuttles were launched. And almost all NASA missions in between. But NASA hasn’t used the pad since Space Shuttle Atlantis blasted off on its final mission, July 8, 2011.
SpaceX signed a 20-year lease in 2014 with NASA to take over the complex and rebuild it to support the company’s Falcon 9 and Falcon 9 Heavy rockets, including those that will carry astronauts into space in the company’s Dragon Crew capsule. SpaceX and has been pouring tens of millions of dollars into rebuilding the complex. Still many of the historic structures where Armstrong, Aldrin, Collins and other historic NASA astronauts walked remain in tact.
SpaceX’s Cape Canaveral AFS launch site, Launch Complex 40, was heavily damaged when a Falcon 9 rocket blew up on the pad on Sept. 2. A few weeks ago SpaceX announced it had identified and resolved the issues, and last weekend launched its first rocket since, from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. SpaceX had announced earlier in 2016 that it was essentially done rebidding 39A, except for some fine-tuning for the astronaut program, and there had been widespread speculation after the Sept. 2 disaster that it might switch to that site with its return to space.
Launch Complex 39A has a twin, 39B, which has not been used since 2009. NASA is rebuilding that to handle its next big rocket, the Space Launch System. Launch Complex 39B likely won’t be used before 2018.
NASA has no other active launch sites at Kennedy. So, since Atlantis went up its final time, the federal, civilian space agency has launched all its Florida-based missions, whether on SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, Orbital ATK, or other rockets, from Cape Canaveral AFS, just over the fence from Kennedy. All military and commercial launches also have gone up from Cape Canaveral AFS.
S&T Contributing editor Govert Schilling explores two unique astronomical sites that lie under the dark skies of Namibia.
It's one of the strangest things I've ever seen. All around me is a flat area of loose rocks and small, thorny vegetation. But there's no horizon. No endless plains, no distant mountains. The scene suddenly stops at a distance of a few hundred meters. Beyond and above is just blue sky, with a burning hot Sun. I feel like I'm on a mini-planet.
The flat, rocky summit of Namibia's Gamsberg. Govert Schilling
"Pretty weird, isn't it?" says Waltraub Eppelmann. We're at the center of the flat summit of Gamsberg, at 2,347 meters the third-highest mountain in Namibia (a former German colony). Waltraub drove me up here in her 4WD Toyota Landcruiser. It was a two-hour spine-chilling trip on the worst "road" I've ever been on, basically a jumble of large rocks and boulders, with fathomless abysses and grades up to almost 45°.
From the incredibly steep edge of the plateau, which measures some 1,000 by 800 meters, the view across the Hakos mountain range and the Khomas highland is spectacular. I try to imagine how Gamsberg will look like a few years from now, when construction of the Africa Millimetre Telescope (AMT) may have started.
A team led by Heino Falcke (Radboud University, The Netherlands), has recently signed an agreement with the University of Namibia to start developing the 15-meter single-dish AMT on the "mini-planet" summit of Gamsberg.
The main goal of the AMT is to take part in the international Event Horizon Telescope experiment — a network of millimeter-wave radio dishes around the world that should soon be able to image the supermassive black hole in the center of our Milky Way galaxy. Preferably, Falcke explains, the individual telescopes would be distributed evenly across the globe, "and there's a big hole on the map in Africa."
That’s still largely in the future. Right now, the Gamsberg only holds a slender telecommunications tower and a few small buildings operated by the International Amateur Observatory. "Things will change," says Waltraub Eppelmann. For one, the drive to the plateau will no longer be an adrenalin-producing tourist attraction once the AMT project constructs a proper access road to the summit.
From Farm to Observatory
The Hakos Guestfarm welcomes amateur astronomers to one of the darkest sites in the world. Hakos Guestfarm
Together with her husband Friedhelm Hund, Waltraub runs the nearby Hakos Guestfarm. In the early 1970s, her father Walter Straube, who died in 2015, offered his cattle farm as a base for astronomers from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany. In 1970, the institute had bought the Gamsberg summit with the goal of putting a 2.2-meter optical telescope there, but this telescope eventually ended up at the European La Silla Observatory in northern Chile, leaving Gamsberg undeveloped.
Nevertheless, the extremely clear and dark skies above this part of southern Africa attracted semi-professional amateur astronomers. Famous German astrophotographer Hans Vehrenberg — a lawyer by profession — built a small observatory at Straube's farm, and became like a second father to young Waltraub and her brother Siegfried. After Vehrenberg's death in 1991, Hakos turned into an astronomical oasis for adventurous travelers, with guest rooms, camp sites, great food, some nice telescopes, and magnificent skies.
Meanwhile, the dark skies of Namibia kept luring professional astronomers too. Just after the turn of the century, not far from the Hakos farm, the Max Planck Institute started construction of the High Energy Stereoscopic System (HESS), named in part to honor the Austrian physicist and Nobel laureate Victor Hess, who discovered cosmic rays in 1912. HESS can just be glimpsed from the 350-kilometer gravel road between Namibia's capital city, Windhoek, and the harbor town of Walvis Bay. The unique telescope array is providing a view into the energetic universe.
Overview of the HESS Observatory. The five "telescopes" are surrounded by lightning rods. University of Heidelberg
Every clear and hour of the night, the HESS telescopes are on the lookout for brief flashes of Cherenkov radiation — an extremely faint, bluish glow generated when high-energy gamma-ray photons from deep space enter Earth's atmosphere. Each HESS reflector consists of hundreds of flat mirrors, concentrating the faint flashes on an array of sensitive photo detectors. Four 12-meter reflectors, each with 382 circular 60-centimeter mirrors, are arranged in a square with sides of 120 meters; a fifth 28-meter dish, with 875 hexagonal 90-centimeter mirrors, was added five years ago in the square's center.
The observatory has detected energetic outbursts from quasars and galactic pulsars, which released photons with incredible TeV (tera-electronvolt) energies. HESS has also studied gamma rays produced in particle acceleration processes occuring at supernova shock waves. Moreover, the instrument observed very high-energy gamma rays from the galactic center, the origin of which is still being debated. The HESS websitehighlights other science results over the past decade.
One of the four 12-meter "light bucket" telescopes of the HESS Observatory. The huge parabolic reflector consists of dozens of individual flat, circular mirrors. Govert Schilling
As I tour the photogenic site, French and South African technicians are carrying out maintenance on the large camera of the 28-meter instrument.
“We were in the race to host the Southern-Hemisphere part of the future (much bigger) international Cherenkov Telescope Array,” says site manager Toni Hanke, “but this will now be constructed at the European Paranal Observatory in Chile.”
“I'm not really sure about the future of HESS,” he adds. “It would be sad to dismantle this pioneering observatory because of lack of funding."
Then again, with the development of the AMT nearby, Waltraub's Hakos Guestfarm may start to draw even more dedicated amateur astronomers. I, for one, surely hope to return here someday.
Atlas V to Launch SBIRS GEO-3 for the U.S. Air Force
Rocket/Payload: An Atlas V 401 will launch the Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) GEO-3 mission for the U.S. Air Force.
Date/Site/Launch Time: Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017, from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. The 40-minute launch window opens at 7:46 p.m. EST.
Live Broadcast: Tune in to ULA’s live launch day broadcast beginning at 7:26 p.m. EST.
Mission Description: SBIRS, considered one of the nation's highest priority space programs, is designed to provide global, persistent, infrared surveillance capabilities to meet 21st century demands in four national security mission areas including: missile warning, missile defense, technical intelligence and battlespace awareness.
Launch Notes: SBIRS-GEO-3 will be ULA’s first launch of 2017 and the 69th Atlas V mission overall. SBIRS GEO-3 marks the 33rd Atlas V mission in the 401 configuration; SBIRS GEO-1 and SBIRS GEO-2 missions also launched on the Atlas V 401 rocket.
Missile-warning SBIRS GEO-3 looking good for Jan. 19 launch
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force’s next missile-warning satellite is set to launch from Florida Jan. 19, mission leaders said during a Tuesday teleconference with reporters.
The military’s third Space Based Infrared System Geosynchronous satellite, or SBIRS GEO-3, is checking out, and while there are still a few operational and launch readiness reviews to perform, there do not appear to be any issues that might delay the launch, officials said.
“This is the first national security space mission out of eight planned for this calendar year, and it helps honor the 70th anniversary of the Air Force,” said Col. Kent Nickle, the launch mission director.
The launch of the Lockheed Martin-built satellite was originally scheduled for last October but was pushed back when a supplier told the company they had an issue on an unrelated satellite with one of their engine components, a part that was also used aboard SBIRS.
After a review, however, no problems were found with the engine onboard the SBIRS craft. Col. Dennis Bythewood, the director of the Remote Sensing Systems Directorate for the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, confirmed that the delay had no impact on the missile-warning mission.
“We feel very comfortable that we’ve got a good engine on GEO Flight-3 and that it’s ready to fly,” said Bythewood, who just took over as director of remote sensing in December.
The satellite will augment the two existing SBIRS satellites in orbit, as well as the older Defense Support Program systems. Bythewood said the launch “will provide faster and more accurate missile warning to the warfighter.”
The SBIRS constellation provides better detection of a missile’s point of origin compared to DSP, as well as better prediction of where the missile might impact, Bythewood said. SBIRS also can detect dimmer engine burns, helping to track a wider-range of ballistic missiles.
That helps a great deal with theater security, where the military might not be trying to track a nuclear weapon so much as smaller rockets headed towards troops on the ground or a military base.
Bythewood noted that there are hundreds of ballistic missiles within range of U.S. troops worldwide.
“When the system was originally designed in a Cold War era, we were really worried about the Soviet Union and its allies,” he said, adding that it gave the U.S. a specific geographic region to focus on.
“In today’s world, especially in the last 20 years, the proliferation of missiles outside of that concentrated area has grown demonstrably,” he continued. “What SBIRS brings in capability…is the ability to find dimmer targets with shorter burn times, and those are representative of the tactical threats we see both in Asia and in the Middle East today.”
The satellite will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket. A 40-minute launch window opens at 7:46 p.m. EST.
This will be the first of 12 planned launches for ULA this year.
The first and second SBIRS GEO satellites were launched in 2011 and 2013, respectively. A fourth SBIRS GEO satellite is scheduled for launch Nov. 9.
Construction is also underway on a fifth and sixth SBIRS satellite, expected to be delivered in 2020 and 2021, Bythewood said.
In addition to the dedicated geostationary SBIRS satellites, SBIRS payloads are also flying in highly elliptical orbits as hosted payloads on classified satellites.
Northrop Grumman built the sensor suite that will serve as the heart of the satellite. Bythewood said it was delivered to Lockheed Martin in September 2014, and the company in turn delivered the satellite to the U.S. Air Force in August 2016.
The total cost of building and launch SBIRS GEO-3 is estimated at $1.2 billion.
Weather forecast now 80 percent ‘go’ for Thursday’s Atlas 5 rocket launch
Note: Updated Monday with improved forecast details
CAPE CANAVERAL — Meteorologists are anticipating favorable odds of good weather during the countdown to launch an Atlas 5 rocket and U.S. military satellite on Thursday evening from Cape Canaveral.
The day’s 40-minute launch opportunity that is timed to deliver the satellite into the correct orbital position opens at 7:46 p.m. EST (0046 GMT).
The United Launch Alliance booster will deploy the Space Base Infrared System Geosynchronous Earth Orbit satellite No. 3, or SBIRS GEO Flight 3, to provide missile detection and early-warning notices of incoming threats.
The Air Force’s 45th Weather Squadron at the Cape predicts an 80 percent chance of acceptable launch conditions. The only area of concern for launch will be cumulus clouds.
The specifics for the launch window include scattered low-level and broken high-level clouds, good visibility, winds from the east at 8 to 12 knots, a relative humidity of 80 percent and a temperature of 71 degrees F.
“On launch day, a weak surface trough pushes into Central Florida with a gradual increase in moisture through the day. There is a slight threat of isolated showers mid to late afternoon. Westerly winds in the steering levels will bring any interior showers toward the east coast. Near sunset and with the loss of diurnal heating, the limited shower threat trends down.,” Air Force meteorologists said Monday.
“The primary concern for launch is cumulus clouds.”
In the event of a 24-hour delay, the forecast for Friday evening calls for increasing clouds in the mid- and upper-levels are expected as another surface trough approaches Florida’s Big Bend area, meteorologists say.
There is a 70 percent chance of acceptable launch conditions on Friday due to cumulus clouds and cloud thickness.
The flight will originate from Complex 41, and the rocket will be rolled from its assembly building to the pad on Wednesday morning.
Public viewing options for the evening launch are somewhat limited given the timing of liftoff.
The optimal spot — Playalinda Beach– closes at sundown, nearly two hours before the launch window opens.
That leaves the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex as having the closest available spots. Its main campus 7.1 miles away (although without a direct view of the pad) and the Apollo/Saturn V Center located 5.4 miles away. Either site has admission fees, however.
The nearest free public viewing location offering the best view is Route 401 in Port Canaveral, some 11.7 miles from the launch pad.
The Atlas 5 will generate 860,000 pounds of thrust from its main engine, rising on a pillar of fire to lift the 10,000-pound SBIRS GEO Flight 3 satellite into space.
The rocket will head due east from the Cape en route to a geosynchronous transfer orbit.
It will be the year’s first launch from Cape Canaveral.
Atlas V Rocket Glitch Delays Mission From Vandenberg Air Force Base
West Coast launch planned for Jan. 26 is under review as United Launch Alliance works to resolve booster issue
An Atlas V rocket stands ready to launch the National Reconnaissance Office’s NROL-55 mission from Vandenberg’s Space Launch Complex-3 in 2015. An issue involving an Atlas rocket has delayed the departure of another NRO payload set to launch from there later this month. (United Launch Alliance photo)
United Launch Alliance, which manufactures the Atlas V rocket, announced Monday that the launch date is under review.
“The team is actively working to resolve Atlas V second stage booster issues discovered during vehicle testing,” ULA officials said. “This additional time will allow the ULA team to ensure all systems are operating nominally prior to launch.”
The Atlas V rocket blasts off from Space Launch Complex-3 East on South Base.
Riding on board the Atlas V rocket will be a top-secret payload for the National Reconnaissance Office, which does not release details about its spacecraft.
A new launch date will be released once it’s established, ULA officials said.
The glitch delaying the West Coast mission will not postpone an Atlas V mission from the East Coast.
U.S. Air Force, Lockheed Martin Prepare for Jan. 19 Launch of Next SBIRS Missile Warning Satellite
Once launched, the Bay Area-built satellite will track and deliver infrared data critical to early missile warning and defense
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., The U.S. Air Force and Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT) will launch the next Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) satellite on Jan. 19 aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. The launch window is between 7:46 and 8:26 p.m. EST.
SBIRS GEO Flight 3 was designed and built at Lockheed Martin in Sunnyvale, California, as the next in a series of Air Force satellites that provide multi-mission surveillance in the areas of missile warning, missile defense, technical intelligence and battlespace awareness. The data provided by SBIRS can also be applied to a number of qualified government and civilian applications, including first response for natural disasters and firefighting.
"At Lockheed Martin, we understand the Air Force's important mission to protect our nation and allies around the world, as well as the critical role that SBIRS plays in their continued ability to respond to evolving threats," said David Sheridan, vice president of Lockheed Martin's Overhead Persistent Infrared systems mission area. "With the launch of GEO Flight 3, we are proud to further enhance SBIRS infrared surveillance capabilities, and we look forward to working with our customer and industry teammates toward 100 percent mission success."
Once it reaches Geosynchronous Earth Orbit—around 22,000 miles above the Earth—GEO Flight 3 will use powerful sensors and cameras to detect and track infrared events, such as missile launches or other heat-causing events. While some satellites can only "see" what is directly below them, the SBIRS constellation has a view of the whole world, scanning for wide-area surveillance and staring at spots of interest.
With each satellite build, Lockheed Martin has continued to streamline its manufacturing process and increase efficiencies, while also introducing innovations that will keep SBIRS relevant long into the future. The next satellite, GEO Flight 4, will undergo final assembly, integration and test prior to its planned 2017 launch. SBIRS GEO-5 and GEO-6, which are currently in production, incorporate a new common spacecraft bus, Lockheed Martin's modernized A2100, which dramatically reduces costs and cycle times while increasing the potential to incorporate future advanced sensor suites.
The SBIRS development team is led by the Remote Sensing Systems Directorate at the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, Los Angeles Air Force Base, California. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Sunnyvale, California, is the SBIRS prime contractor, with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, Azusa, California, as the payload integrator. The 460th Space Wing, Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado, operates the SBIRS system.
About Lockheed Martin Headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland, Lockheed Martin is a global security and aerospace company that employs approximately 98,000 people worldwide and is principally engaged in the research, design, development, manufacture, integration and sustainment of advanced technology systems, products and services.
Quelle: Lockheed Martin
Russian Techs In ASOC To Monitor SBIRS GEO 3 Launch Jan 19
A ULA Atlas V rocket launching SBIRS GEO 2. Photo Credit: John Studwell / AmericaSpace
As U.S. / Russian intelligence controversies swirl between the two countries, a team of Russian rocket technicians will be at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Jan. 19 to monitor real time engine data from a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas-V rocket as it lofts the third U.S. Air Force Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) Geosynchronous Orbit (GEO-3) missile warning satellite into orbit.
This new $1.2 billion, 2-ton spacecraft, intended for hemispheric monitoring, is scheduled for liftoff at 7:46 p.m. EDT at the start of a 40 minute launch window.
SBIRS GEO-3 missile warning satellite. Photo Credit: Lockheed Martin
In addition several Highly Elliptical Orbit (HEO) missile warning SBIRS payloads with similar sensors have been launched piggyback on other classified U.S. military satellites to specifically monitor northern latitudes.
The use of Russian rocket engines on Atlas V’s flying U.S. military space missions caused a major debate in Congress last year, but continued use of the Russian engine won out over a U.S. replacement because of cost and schedule considerations. The issue could come up again under the new Trump Presidential Administration.
“SBIRS is considered one of the nation’s highest priority space programs,” said Bob Winn, United Launch Alliance’s Air Force program manager.
Locked in their own computer control room in the ULA Atlas Spaceflight Operations Center (ASOC), the Russian team will monitor the real time engine parameters of the Russian Energomash RD-180 engine that will power the Atlas V.
The team has also participated in monitoring RD-180 engine checks at the Cape, and with escorts, can gain access inside of the Atlas V engine compartment that extends about 15 ft. from the base of the rocket on Launch Complex 41.
According to the Air Force and ULA such a Russian Energomash team has been at the Cape for many, but not all Atlas V missions.
The Atlas 401 version, with no solid rocket boosters. is to place the Lockheed Martin spacecraft into a 22,237 x 115 mi. transfer orbit that will be circularized in geosynchronous orbit by several firings of the satellite’s liquid apogee engine.
Earlier USAF Defense Support Program (DSP) scanning infrared missile warning spacecraft were able to detect about 8,000 “infrared events” per year including about 200 larger missile launches.
But with SBIRS HEO and GEO spacecraft retiring the DSPs, the USAF is now able to track dimmer targets with shorter engine burn times. The Missile Defense Agency has over the last five years been able to see about 1,200 additional ballistic missiles, and 5,900 smaller rocket systems in the Middle East and Asia areas outside of NATO, Russia and China compared with earlier capabilities.
“Hundreds of [these] launchers and missiles are currently in range of our deployed forces,” said USAF Col. Dennis Bythewood, director of the Remote Sensing Systems Directorate at the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles. Those trends are continuing, he said.
Chart shows SBIRS GEO and HEO sensor capabilities compared with older DSP. Image Credit: USAF/Aviation Week
“Regional systems present in Asia and the Middle East are well within the range of our deployed forces. The SBIRS constellation is tasked with providing timely, reliable accurate missile warning information to protect our nation and to our troops operating abroad.” Bythewood said.
“Regional missile systems present in Asia and the Middle East are well within the range of our deployed forces, he said.
The first SBIRS GEO was launched in May 2011 on an Atlas V, followed by the second in March 2013. They currently cover the globe from the eastern Atlantic, across Europe, through the Middle East, the Korean Peninsula and all the way to the western Pacific.
Simulated SBIRS console image of North Korean missile launch. Image Credit: USAF / Northrop Grumman / Aviation Week
The planned GEO-3 location is classified, but the capability of the HEO and GEO satellites we are launching now basically cuts in half the amount of time it takes for the SBIRS network satellite to find and fix a missile launch and feed that into our missile warning network,” Bythewood said.
“What SBIRS brings in capability beyond the Defense Support Program is the ability to find dimmer targets with shorter burn times, representative of the tactical missile threats that we see in Asia and the Middle East today” he said.
The GEO satellites detect and track missile launches globally while the HEO satellites specifically survey northern polar regions and specific IR targets identified by SBIRS or other sensors.
Each GEO satellite is derived from an A2100 bus with a 12 year design life and 9.8 year mean mission duration. It carries a 1,000 lb. Northrup Grumman sensor system with both scanning and staring capability. Along with that it has extremely agile pointing and control capability to provide both strategic and tactical data on missile launch locations and impact points.
Current USAF launch weather forecasts show an 80 percent chance of favorable conditions expected for launch Thursday evening from Florida’s Space Coast, with the primary concern being possible Cumulus Clouds.
Atlas V to Launch SBIRS GEO Flight 3 for the U.S. Air Force
Jan. 19, 2017, 8:36 p.m. EST: The launch of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V carrying the SBIRS GEO Flight 3 mission was scrubbed today due to a violation of Eastern Range safety criteria.
The launch is planned for Friday, Jan. 20, from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The launch window is 7:42-8:22 p.m. EST.
Rocket/Payload: An Atlas V 401 will launch the Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) GEO Flight 3 mission for the U.S. Air Force.
Date/Site/Launch Time: Friday, Jan. 20, 2017, from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. The 40-minute launch window opens at 7:42 p.m. EST.
Live Broadcast: Tune in to ULA’s live launch day broadcast beginning at 7:22 p.m. EST.
Mission Description: SBIRS, considered one of the nation's highest priority space programs, is designed to provide global, persistent, infrared surveillance capabilities to meet 21st century demands in four national security mission areas including: missile warning, missile defense, technical intelligence and battlespace awareness.
Launch Notes: SBIRS GEO Flight 3 will be ULA’s first launch of 2017 and the 69th Atlas V mission overall. This mission marks the 34th Atlas V mission in the 401 configuration; the two previous SBIRS GEO missions also launched on the Atlas V 401 rocket.
Update:The Atlas V rocket successfully lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 7:42 p.m. A rescheduled rocket launch in Florida tonight has a 70 percent chance of favorable weather, according to the U.S. Air Force’s weather squadron. United Launch Alliance plans to send a satellite...
Quelle: Orlando Sentinel
United Launch Alliance Successfully Launches SBIRS GEO Flight 3 Satellite to Orbit for U.S. Air Force
Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., (Jan. 20, 2017) – A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) GEO Flight 3 satellite lifted off from Space Launch Complex-41 Jan. 20 at 7:42 p.m. ET. SBIRS GEO Flight 3 is considered one of the nation’s highest priority space programs.
“ULA is proud to deliver this critical satellite which will improve surveillance capabilities for our national decision makers,” said Laura Maginnis, ULA vice president of Government Satellite Launch. “I can’t think of a better way to kick off the new year.”
This mission was launched aboard an Atlas V Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) 401 configuration vehicle, which includes a 4-meter diameter large payload fairing (LPF). The Atlas V booster propulsion for this mission was powered by the RD AMROSS RD-180 engine, and the Centaur upper stage was powered by the Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C engine.
“The Atlas V 401 configuration has become the workhorse of the Atlas V fleet, delivering half of all Atlas V missions to date” said Maginnis. “ULA understands that even with the most reliable launch vehicles, our sustained mission success is only made possible with seamless integration between our customer and our world class ULA team.”
The Space Based Infrared System is designed to provide global, persistent, infrared surveillance capabilities to meet 21st century demands in four national security mission areas: missile warning, missile defense, technical intelligence and battlespace awareness.
This is ULA’s first launch of 11 planned launches in 2017 and the 116th successful launch since the company was formed in December 2006.
ULA's next East Coast launch is the Delta IV WGS-9 satellite for the U.S. Air Force. The launch is scheduled for March 8 from Space Launch Complex-37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. With more than a century of combined heritage, United Launch Alliance is the nation’s most experienced and reliable launch service provider. ULA has successfully delivered more than 115 satellites to orbit that aid meteorologists in tracking severe weather, unlock the mysteries of our solar system provide critical capabilities for troops in the field, and enable personal device-based GPS navigation and unlock the mysteries of our solar system.
NASA's New Horizons Unveils Its Masterpiece: Pluto's Interior!
The geological features and scientific data observed and taken by New Horizons indicate a subsurface ocean beneath Pluto’s surface, encircling the entire planet. Illustration credit: James Keane.
In July of 2015, after a nine year journey through space, New Horizons flew past Pluto at a speed of more than 30,000 mph (13 km/s). Over the span of just a few hours, it took so much data with so many cameras and instruments it took a full 16 months to send it all back to Earth, a task that was just completed weeks ago. The data it sent back allowed us to construct a full map of one of Pluto’s hemispheres, plus a glorious backlit shot of its night side in eclipse. But scientifically, there was so much more than a slew of beautiful pictures, and that data enabled us to understand, for the first time, the interior of a Kuiper belt world.
Sputnik Planitia (the left lobe of Pluto’s “heart”) is believed to be an impact basin, filled in with cryogenic ices. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI.
Here on Earth, we have mountains, plateaus, plains and oceans covering the surface. But these surface variations correspond to different physical properties the farther down into the Earth’s interior you go. The Earth’s crust floats atop the mantle, which in turn floats above the outer and inner cores. Similarly, the ocean floats above the crust, and the atmosphere above them both. In general, the less dense layers of any world are found atop the denser layers, and that gives rise to what we see here on the surface. But just as water has to displace to stably support a ship submerged in it, a lower layer needs to displace so that mountains don’t tip over or so that upswells don’t destroy valleys or crustal troughs. In order for these surface variations to exist and be stable, we need the lower layers to compensate as well.
The Earth’s crust is thinnest over the ocean and thickest over mountains and plateaus, as the principle of buoyancy dictates and as gravitational experiments confirm. Image credit: pubs.usgs.gov.
On Earth, that means that the highest mountain ranges also see the crust dip into the mantle beneath those ranges a significant amount, something we can detect my intricately measuring the Earth’s magnetic field. The ocean bottoms are where the crust is thinnest: only 2-5 km thick in some places. And similarly, plateaus, plains and continental shelves have identifiable features beneath the surface as well. Our active geology isn’t just about what happens on the surface, but deep in the planet’s interior as well.
This unusual view of Pluto is a topographic map, showing variations in crustal heights derived from New Horizons data. Note that Sputnik Planitia is 2-3 km below the mean altitude of the rest of the world. Image credit: F. Nimmo et al., “Reorientation of Sputnik Planitia implies a subsurface ocean on Pluto”, Nature (2016).
Pluto may not officially be an astronomical planet, but as a world, it has its own complex, interesting and active geology. A combination of four types of molecules — nitrogen, methane, water and carbon monoxide — can all exist in the solid, liquid and gaseous phases on Pluto, and give rise to an incredible variety of terrain. The tall, water-ice mountains; the cracked, washboard-like terrain; the cellular ice plains with flowing streams; the dark-colored highlands and more display huge variations in crustal thickness, age and altitude. An ultra-high-resolution flyover showcases some of the greatest variations.
Now that the map of Pluto is complete and the varied terrain has been studied, scientists have determined regions of instability and have identified how the Plutonian interior must be behaving in order to deliver the Pluto that we see. The surface features we see are transient on significantly shorter timescales than the mountains and continents are on Earth, and faulting and mountainous reorientation must be common. Sputnik Planitia, a large, teardrop-shaped depression, represents a massive unit of actively convecting volatile ices several kilometers thick. The gravitational stresses resulting from this instability can lead to planet-wide faulting in the crust, further indicating how active Pluto is.
Sputnik Planitia with Pluto and Charon shown as aligned and to scale. Image credit: J. Keane et al., “Reorientation and faulting of Pluto due to volatile loading within Sputnik Planitia”, Nature (2016).
Despite having a less-dense ice surface that must be 3-4 kilometers thick, with a denser layer more similar to the rest of Pluto’s surface underneath it, this portion of Pluto exhibits a positive gravitational anomaly. Much like Earth’s oceans, where the crust is thinnest, can be explained by Earth’s sub-crustal mantle, Sputnik Planitia could be explained as a natural result if Pluto has a huge subsurface ocean. In particular, the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics & Imaging Theme Team indicates it:
would naturally result because of shell thinning and ocean uplift, followed by later modest nitrogen deposition
With a subsurface ocean, Pluto’s entire geology can be explained in one fell swoop.
A model of the subsurface ocean beneath Pluto, and how it can explain the gravitational anomaly of Sputnik Planitia. Image credit: F. Nimmo et al., “Reorientation of Sputnik Planitia implies a subsurface ocean on Pluto”, Nature (2016).
Just as on Earth, we say “it’s only the tip of the iceberg” with the full knowledge that 90% of the mass of an iceberg is submerged beneath the surface, there should be a water-ice ocean beneath an icy crust, and that crust should be thinnest underneath the crater that Sputnik Planitia resides in. The left “lobe” of Pluto’s famous heart is the deepest depression in the Plutonian surface, and must have reoriented itself to align in a gravitationally favorable way with the Pluto-Charon axis. With this observation under our belts, we can now more accurately map the interior of Pluto than ever before.
The geologic structure beneath the surface of Sputnik Planitia. On Pluto, it is possible that the thinned crust is overlying a liquid water ocean. Illustration credit: James Keane
Most impressively, this research raises a tantalizing possibility: that as Sputnik Planitia continues to accumulate ices, Pluto may yet reorient itself again, as subsurface changes continue to ensue. This is possible because nitrogen becomes an atmospheric gas during the “day” side, but then when Pluto continues in its orbit and the nitrogen heads to the “night” side, it precipitates, and some of that lands in Pluto’s heart. According to researcher James Keane,
Each time Pluto goes around the sun, a bit of nitrogen accumulates in the heart. And once enough ice has piled up, maybe a hundred meters thick, it starts to overwhelm the planet’s shape, which dictates the planet’s orientation. And if you have an excess of mass in one spot on the planet, it wants to go to the equator. Eventually, over millions of years, it will drag the whole planet over.
Sputnik Planitia formed by a comet impact, oriented northwest of its present location, and reoriented to its present location as the basin filled with volatile ices. Illustration credit: James Keane.
The biggest implications are for a massive subsurface ocean on Pluto, but this also indicates a world that continues to change, evolve, tip, crack and even reorient itself as time goes on. The most distant worlds in our Solar System are still active. Being frozen was never such a hot topic as it is today.
Pluto's Heavy Heart Shaped Dwarf Planet's Landscape
Pluto's famous heart may not have been born in violence after all.
Researchers have generally assumed that the heart's left "lobe" — a 600-mile-wide (1,000 kilometers) plain called Sputnik Planitia (formerly Sputnik Planum) — is an enormous impact crater that subsequently filled with frozen nitrogen and other exotic ices.
But a new study suggests that the ice buildup came first and the accumulated material eventually pushed the underlying landscape down, much as Greenland's enormous ice sheet has done here on Earth.
"Pluto's big heart weighs heavily on the small planet, leading inevitably to depression," study lead author Douglas Hamilton, a professor of astronomy at the University of Maryland, said in a statement.
It's no accident that Sputnik Planitia — which was discovered by NASA's New Horizons probe during its epic Pluto flyby in July 2015 — is centered at 25 degrees north, Hamilton said. His team's computer models predicted that ice would accumulate at about 30 degrees north or south latitude, because these are the coldest regions on Pluto. (The dwarf planet is tilted roughly 120 degrees relative to its orbital plane, compared with 23 degrees for Earth.)
"The poles on Pluto, averaged over a year, are actually the hottest parts of the planet, not the coldest," Hamilton told Space.com, referring to one Pluto year, which lasts 248 Earth years. "That's alien to us and sounds wrong, but math doesn't lie. That's how it works out."
In addition, the group's simulations indicated that ice wouldn't build up in a band at 30 degrees north and/or south. Rather, a single ice cap would form, as the result of a (nearly literal) snowball effect: As ices started to accumulate in one spot, that area would reflect more sunlight and thus become colder than surrounding regions, leading to greater ice deposition, and so on.
Previous studies based on New Horizons data suggest that Sputnik Planitia's ice is at least 1.2 to 1.8 miles (2 to 3 km) thick (and possibly much thicker). So, at a minimum, 0.03 percent of Pluto's entire mass is concentrated in the ice cap, Hamilton said. That's enough material to push the landscape down and form a huge basin, he added.
The team's models further indicate that ice accumulation in Sputnik Planitia happened quickly. The cap likely formed within a million years of the giant impact on Pluto that formed the dwarf planet's largest moon, Charon, and has been relatively stable since, researchers said. (Exactly when the Charon-forming impact occurred is unknown, but it was probably quite early in the solar system's history.)
After Charon's birth, Pluto's rotation slowed until the two bodies were "tidally locked," showing each other only one face, as Earth's moon shows just one side to us. According to the researchers' simulations, Charon's gravitational tug then pulled Sputnik Planitia into its current alignment opposite the moon.
In short, the team's modeling results explain pretty well what New Horizons saw on July 14, 2015, Hamilton said.
Indeed, given any starting conditions on Pluto, those simulations produce an ice cap sitting in a basin in one of four spots, Hamilton said — at about 30 degrees north or south, and either facing toward or away from Charon.
This scenario provides a "simpler" explanation for Sputnik Planitia than the prevailing view, which posits that the basin formed after a cosmic impact, study team members said.
"This interpretation has the advantage of providing an explanation for why the basin is coincident with the ice cap and why both are located at the coldest latitude on Pluto and at a longitude that is directly opposite Charon," Hamilton and his colleagues wrote in the new study, which was published online today (Nov. 30) in the journal Nature.
Other researchers have modeled the formation and evolution of Sputnik Planitia as well, but these efforts have tended to assume that the basin is an ancient impact feature. One such team, led by Francis Nimmo of the University of California, Santa Cruz, recently concluded that the position of Sputnik Planitia hints at the presence of a subsurface ocean on Pluto, a possibility raised by several other lines of evidence as well.
The new study has little bearing on this question, said Hamilton, who was also a co-author on the Nimmo-led paper.
"My modeling doesn't care too much one way or the other about whether there's an ocean," Hamilton told Space.com.
Definitively figuring out whether Pluto harbors a buried ocean may require launching an orbiter to the dwarf planet, he added.
Exploring Pluto and a Billion Miles Beyond
New Horizons is on its way to a new flyby, where it will study an ancient building block of small planets like Pluto, on New Year’s Day 2019. Credit: Roman Tkachenko
As 2016 ends, I can’t help but point out an interesting symmetry in where the mission has recently been and where we are going. Exactly two years ago we had just taken New Horizons out of cruise hibernation to begin preparations for the Pluto flyby. And exactly two years from now we will be on final approach to our next flyby, which will culminate with a very close approach to a small Kuiper Belt object (KBO) called 2014 MU69 – a billion miles farther out than Pluto – on Jan. 1, 2019. Just now, as 2016 ends, we are at the halfway point between those two milestones.
During this phase between flyby operations, all of the systems and scientific instruments aboard New Horizons are healthy. In October, we completed the 16-month-long transmission of all Pluto flyby data to Earth. Our science team is now steadily analyzing those data, making new discoveries and writing reports to research journals like Science, Nature, Icarus, the Journal of Geophysical Research and the Astronomical Journal. Almost 50 scientific papers reporting new results about Pluto and its system of moons were submitted this year!
Additionally, our science and science operations teams have made two major Pluto submissions to NASA’s archive of all planetary mission data, the Planetary Data System (PDS). Two final submissions to the PDS will be made in 2017, wrapping up the archiving of Pluto data for others in the scientific community to use. Those upcoming submissions will include better-calibrated datasets resulting from the intensive, post-Pluto flyby calibration campaign we conducted this summer using all seven payload instruments aboard New Horizons and a series of “meta-products” like maps and atmospheric profiles created from New Horizons data.
The year ahead will begin with observations of a half-dozen KBOs by our LORRI telescope/imager in January. Those observations, like the ones we made in 2016 of another half-dozen KBOs, are designed to better understand the orbits, surface properties, shapes, satellite systems and frequency of rings around these objects. These observations can’t be done from any groundbased telescope, the Hubble Space Telescope, or any other spacecraft – because all of those other resources are either too far away or viewing from the wrong angles to accomplish this science. So this work is something that only New Horizons can accomplish.
New Horizons prepares for New Year’s Day 2019 Kuiper Belt Object encounter
A year and a half after its historic flyby of dwarf planet Pluto, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is preparing for its encounter with a second Kuiper Belt Object. Now just two years away from the planned 1 January 2019 encounter with 2014 MU69, New Horizons is in a healthy state as it sails toward the small, rocky, classical Kuiper Belt Object.
2014 MU69 – a new target for New Horizons:
Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) 2014 MU69 – located approximately 1.6 billion km (1 billion mi) beyond Pluto – was discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope on 26 June 2014 during a dedicated survey of the sky and portion of the Kuiper Belt along New Horizons’ post-Pluto trajectory to find potential targets for the craft to encounter after Pluto.
To this end, the Hubble Space Telescope was employed in the search for a new Kuiper Belt flyby target because of its high precision observation capability, ability to resolve objects with high apparent magnitudes that are not visible to Earth-based telescopes, and its ability to provide reliable orbit determinations of any objects discovered.
When 2014 MU69 was discovered, it was initially labeled 1110113Y, with a nickname “11”, and was announced by NASA as a potential post-Pluto target for New Horizons in October 2014 – receiving the internal label PT1 (Potential Target 1) by NASA.
The object did not receive its official designation of 2014 MU69by the Minor Planet Center until March 2015 after sufficient orbital information had been computed via multiple observations of the body.
The designation of 2014 MU69 is, in fact, itself a provisional designation and indicates that the object was the 1,745th object discovered between 16 and 30 June 2014.
Based on current observations, 2014 MU69 is understood to be in a 295 Earth-years orbit with an aphelion of 45.86 AU and a perihelion of 42.69 ±0.04 AU – with a semi-major axis of 44.28 AU and an orbital eccentricity of 0.0358 ±0.001.
The object’s orbit is inclined 2.4532° ±0.0002° to the ecliptic plane (Earth’s orbital plane as defined by the path of the Sun on the sky) and carries a longitude of ascending node (the angular position of a celestial body as it travels across the reference plane as measured from a reference point on the ecliptic plane) of 158.933° ±0.007.
Moreover, 2014 MU69 has an argument of perihelion (the angular distance from the ascending node to the perihelion measured in the orbit plane) of 179.9° ±1° and is currently understood to be between 25 – 45 km (15.5 – 28 mi) in diameter and is observed to have an apparent magnitude of 26.8 and an absolute magnitude of 10.9 – with ranges for its assumed albedo being 0.04 – 0.15.
Moreover, the low inclination and low eccentricity of the object’s orbit indicate that 2014 MU69 is a cold, classical KBO that is unlikely to have experienced significant perturbations over the course of its existence.
At the time of the Pluto encounter, two potential KBOs for a post-Pluto flyby remained of the initial four potential targets.
Those two remaining targets, PT1 and PT3, were both easily accessible given New Horizons’ remaining trajectory-adjustment fuel supply, though PT3 was actually the more preferred object from a scientific perspective.
Nonetheless, PT3 would have required nearly all of the trajectory-adjustment fuel supply aboard New Horizons – which would have left little fuel for adjustment maneuvers based on then unforeseen events.
Therefore, on 28 August 2015, NASA and the New Horizons team officially selected PT1 – 2014 MU69 – as the primary flyby target, while also allowing New Horizons to study nearly 20 KBOs from greater distances.
“2014 MU69 is a great choice because it is just the kind of ancient KBO, formed where it orbits now, that the Decadal Survey desired us to fly by,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern.
“Moreover, this KBO costs less fuel to reach, leaving more fuel for the flyby, for ancillary science, and greater fuel reserves to protect against the unforeseen.”
With the target selected, a series of four trajectory-adjustment burns began on 22 October 2015. The second burn occurred on 25 October, with the third following on 28 October. The maneuver series culminated on 4 November 2015 with a 20-minute burn from New Horizons’ hydrazine thrusters.
In total, the four burns pushed New Horizons sideways from its then-trajectory – totaling a 57 mps (128 mph) nudge that put New Horizons on the proper intercept course for 2014 MU69 .
Each successive burn was the farthest course correction ever performed by a spacecraft and also represented the largest, longest, and quickest-in-succession targeting maneuvers of the New Horizons mission.
However, while these burns set up New Horizons to physically fly by its new KBO target, funding and a specific proposal had not yet been approved or submitted to NASA.
A formal plan to study 2014 MU69 was submitted in early 2016, and NASA officially approved the extended mission on 1 July 2016.
Under the approved plan, the encounter with 2014 MU69 carries six primary mission objectives, including: mapping the surface geology to learn how it formed and has evolved; measuring the surface temperature; mapping the 3D surface topography and surface composition to learn how it is similar to and how it is different from comets like 67P and dwarf planets such as Pluto.
Moreover, New Horizons will also search 2014 MU69 for any signs of activity (such as a cloud-like coma), any satellites or rings, and measure and constrain the body’s mass.
Then, in October 2016, newly analyzed data gathered by the Hubble Space Telescope revealed that the surface of 2014 MU69 is likely red, if not redder, than Pluto.
The observations made 2014 MU69the smallest KBO to have its color measured and confirmed that the object is part of the cold classical region of the Kuiper Belt, which is believed to contain some of the oldest, most prehistoric material in the solar system.
“The reddish color tells us the type of Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69 is,” said Amanda Zangari, a New Horizons post-doctoral researcher from the Southwest Research Institute.
“The data confirms that on New Year’s Day 2019, New Horizons will be looking at one of the ancient building blocks of the planets.”
With all course correction maneuvers complete and funding in place, New Horizons is expected to fly by 2014 MU69 on 1 January 2019.
At this time, the object will be 43.4 AU from the Sun and located – as viewed from Earth – in the constellation Sagittarius.
While the precise altitude of closest approach has not yet been determined, New Horizons’ scientists have said they will get as close to the object as the navigation team will allow – which is expected to be far closer than the 12,500 km (7,767 mi) close approach New Horizons perform with Pluto in July 2015.
In all, 2014 MU69 will be the second KBO explored via close-up observations – following the exploration of Pluto – and will also make history as it will become the first object to under go up-close investigation by a spacecraft that was launched prior to the object’s discovery.
(Images: NASA, Johns Hopkins University, Applied Physics Laboratory, Southwest Research Institute, Alex Parker, ESA, and the New Horizons KBO Search Team)
Scientists Offer Sharper Insight into Pluto’s Bladed Terrain
Using a model similar to what meteorologists use to forecast weather and a computer simulation of the physics of evaporating ices, scientists have found evidence of snow and ice features on Pluto that, until now, had only been seen on Earth.
The bladed terrain of Pluto’s informally named Tartarus Dorsa region, imaged by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft in July 2015.
Formed by erosion, the features, known as “penitentes,” are bowl-shaped depressions with blade-like spires around the edge that rise several hundreds of feet.
The research, led by John Moores of York University, Toronto, and done in collaboration with scientists at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, indicates that these icy features may also exist on other planets where environmental conditions are similar.
The identification of these ridges in Pluto’s informally named Tartarus Dorsa area suggests that the presence of an atmosphere is necessary for the formation of penitentes – which Moores says would explain why they have not previously been seen on other airless icy satellites or dwarf planets. “But exotic differences in the environment give rise to features with very different scales,” he adds. “This test of our terrestrial models for penitentes suggests that we may find these features elsewhere in the solar system, and in other solar systems, where the conditions are right."
The research team, which also includes York’s Christina Smith, Anthony Toigo of APL and Scott Guzewich of Goddard Space Flight Center, compared its model to ridges on Pluto imaged by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft in 2015. Pluto’s ridges are much larger – more than 1,600 feet (about 500 meters) tall and separated by two to three miles (about three to five kilometers) – than their Earthly counterparts.
“This gargantuan size is predicted by the same theory that explains the formation of these features on Earth,” says Moores. “In fact, we were able to match the size and separation, the direction of the ridges, as well as their age: three pieces of evidence that support our identification of these ridges as penitentes.”
Moores says though Pluto's environment is very different from Earth’s -- it is much colder, the air much thinner, the sun much dimmer and the snow and ice on the surface are made from methane and nitrogen instead of water -- the same laws of nature apply. He adds that both NASA and APL were instrumental in the collaboration that led to this new finding; both provided background information on Pluto's atmosphere using a model similar to what meteorologists use to forecast weather on Earth. This was one of the key ingredients in Moores’ own models of the penitentes, without which this discovery would not have been made.
The findings appear this week in the journal Nature.
Charon Is Pluto's First Line of Defense Against Solar Wind Onslaught
Lacking a strong magnetic shield, Pluto's thin atmosphere is being eroded into space — but Charon is doing its bit to protect its dwarf planet buddy.
Space weather can be a nightmare for planetary atmospheres, particularly for ones that don't have a magnetic field to protect them — unlike Earth's, which has a powerful magnetosphere acting as a shield. It might therefore be strange to hear that dwarf planet Pluto, which isn't known for its powerful global magnetic field, is able to possess an atmosphere at all. But like other planets in the solar system, the sun erodes Pluto's atmosphere — albeit at a slower rate than expected.
Although astronomical measurements detected the presence of an atmosphere at Pluto long before the NASA New Horizons flyby in July 2015, very little was known about how much was being eroded into space by the continuous stream of solar wind particles. New Horizons measurements, however, proved that the rate of atmospheric loss was 100 times less than expected and, in new research published this week in the journal Icarus, researchers think they know what might be protecting Pluto's tenuous atmospheric gases.
Researchers from Georgia Institute of Technology have shown that when Charon orbits between Pluto and the sun, its presence can modify the dwarf planet's bow shock — a standing shock wave that appears "upstream" of Pluto as the solar wind particles encounter Pluto's thin atmosphere, like the wave that roils in front of a boat's bow when it powers through water — thereby shielding Pluto's atmosphere for a short time. Charon maximizes this protection should it also have an atmosphere, but its protective impact is minimal when it either doesn't have an atmosphere or when it is positioned "downstream" of Pluto.
As Pluto and Charon orbit so close to one another, the pair are believed to share atmospheric gases and when Charon passes behind Pluto particles originating from Pluto are deposited at the moon's poles, appearing as a dark brown deposit in New Horizons observations.
As Pluto is located so far away from the sun in the Kuiper Belt, the impact of the solar wind is much lower than its impact on planets closer to the sun. The space weather impact has been reduced even further with the help of Charon.
"As a result, Pluto still has more of its volatile elements, which have long since been blown off the inner planets by solar wind," said Georgia Tech student John Hale. "Even at its great distance from the sun, Pluto is slowly losing its atmosphere. Knowing the rate at which Pluto's atmosphere is being lost can tell us how much atmosphere it had to begin with, and therefore what it looked like originally. From there, we can get an idea of what the solar system was made of during its formation."
As Pluto and Charon orbit so close, and Charon is roughly half the size of its dwarf planet buddy, the pair orbit a common point in space known as the "barycenter." This orbital oddity added fuel to the debate as to whether Pluto should be called a dwarf planet, or whether Pluto and Charon should be designated a "binary planet." Now, with more findings about the pair's atmospheric interactions, it could be argued that the case for calling Pluto a binary planet is as valid as ever.
Pluto Global Color Map
This new, detailed global mosaic color map of Pluto is based on a series of three color filter images obtained by the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera aboard New Horizons during the NASA spacecraft’s close flyby of Pluto in July 2015. The mosaic shows how Pluto’s large-scale color patterns extend beyond the hemisphere facing New Horizons at closest approach, which were imaged at the highest resolution. North is up; Pluto’s equator roughly bisects the band of dark red terrains running across the lower third of the map. Pluto’s giant, informally named Sputnik Planitia glacier – the left half of Pluto’s signature “heart” feature – is at the center of this map. Note: Click on the image to view in the highest resolution.