Tag Archives: spacecraft

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft spotted fresh rainfall on Saturn’s moon Titan

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft spotted fresh rainfall on Saturn’s moon TitanNASA's Cassini orbiter has been dead for well over a year now, but its incredible discoveries continue to trickle in as researchers pore over data and images it collected while it was active.

Consequently, studies focused on the orbiter's findings continue to crop up on a regular basis, such as a recent study from University of Idaho in Moscow doctoral student Rajani Dhingra, who, along with her colleagues, found evidence of rainfall on the north pole of Saturn's largest moon, Titan, in an image taken on June 7th, 2016. This indicates that summer had arrived on the moon's northern hemisphere later than climate models had predicted.

"The whole Titan community has been looking forward to seeing clouds and rains on Titan's north pole, indicating the start of the northern summer, but despite what the climate models had predicted, we weren't even seeing any clouds," said Dhingra, lead author of the study. "People called it the curious case of missing clouds."

Dhingra and her colleagues spotted a reflective feature near the north pole of Titan in the aforementioned image — a feature which covered approximately 46,332 square miles — which had never appeared before, and didn't appear when Cassini passed by again. Dhingra concluded that the reflective nature of the feature was due to sunlight reflecting off of a wet surface, which she believes was the result of a methane rainfall event.

This is the first time summer rainfall has ever been observed on Titan. While Earth experiences four seasons over the course of a year, a single season on Titan lasts seven Earth years. When Cassini reached Titan, clouds and rainfall were observed in the southern hemisphere, signaling a southern summer. Climate models predicted the rain would move to the northern hemisphere "leading up to the northern summer solstice in 2017," but the clouds still hadn't appeared by 2016. The images above should help reseachers understand why this was the case.

We want our model predictions to match our observations. This rainfall detection proves Cassini's climate follows the theoretical climate models we know of," Dhingra said. "Summer is happening. It was delayed, but it's happening. We will have to figure out what caused the delay, though."

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Here’s what NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft sees as it orbits Bennu asteroid

Here’s what NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft sees as it orbits Bennu asteroidIt's only been about a week since NASA successfully inserted its OSIRIS-REx asteroid probe into orbit around the large space rock known as Bennu, after initially arriving in early December. The diamond-shaped object will quickly become one of the most closely-studied asteroids ever, but for now NASA wants to learn as much about Bennu's surface as possible, and that means observing it from every angle.

In a new video animation that has been stitched together from numerous still shots we get one of our best looks yet at the asteroid. As the probe circles the rock, its powerful lens has captured Bennu from just about every angle, making for a neat little movie.

"During the month of December, the spacecraft performed a preliminary survey of Bennu, conducting three flyovers of the asteroid's north pole and one each of its equator and south pole," NASA's OSIRIS-REx team explains. "The data gathered during these flybys allowed the mission team to more precisely estimate Bennu's mass so that the spacecraft could go into orbit around the asteroid."


OSIRIS-REx has a fairly long road ahead of it before NASA declares the mission a complete success. The spacecraft will remain in orbit around Bennu for at least the next year or so, closely studying it and delivering even more images of its messy surface. During that time, NASA will decide on a spot from which to collect a material sample, eventually touching down on Bennu and retrieving some of its surface material before flying back to Earth.

OSIRIS-REx is expected to arrive back on Earth sometime in 2023, at which point eager scientists will have an opportunity to study the sample in great detail. If everything goes according to plan, the mission should teach scientists a great deal about asteroid formation and perhaps even give us a window into the earliest days of our Solar System.

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Ultima Thule: First photographs taken by New Horizons spacecraft reveal distant world resembles snowman

Ultima Thule: First photographs taken by New Horizons spacecraft reveal distant world resembles snowmanNasa has revealed the first photo of the distant world of Ultima Thule, the most distant object that humanity has ever explored. The tiny, icy object resembles a snowman in the photo, which is just the first of a whole host of data that the space agency hopes to receive back from its New Horizons spacecraft. The picture came after flight controllers said they had had success in the high-risk, middle-of-the-night encounter at the mysterious body known as Ultima Thule on the frozen fringes of our solar system, about four billion miles away in a dark and frigid region of space known as the Kuiper Belt. Now they will work to download and look through all of the data sent back over that long distance, a process that could take years. "That image is so 2018… Meet Ultima Thule!" said lead investigator Alan Stern, doing little to hide his joy as he revealed a new sharper image of the cosmic body, taken at a distance as close as 17,000 miles with a resolution of 140 metres per pixel. "That bowling pin is gone – it's a snowman if anything at all," Dr Stern said during a Nasa briefing. "What this spacecraft and this team accomplished is unprecedented." These are the first colour images of Ultima Thule, taken at a distance of 85,000 miles, highlighting its reddish surface Credit: AFP Ultima Thule's surface reflects light about as much as "garden variety dirt," he said, as the sun's rays are 1,600 times fainter there than on Earth. The body is roughly 19 miles long and completes its own rotation in about 15 hours. Nasa dubbed the larger lobe Ultima, and the other, which is about three times smaller, Thule. "This is the first object that we can clearly tell was born this way" Stern said, instead of evolving as a sort of "bi-lobe." "This really puts the nail on the coffin now. We know that this is how these kinds of objects in many cases form." Alan Stern, with New Horizons team members  Credit: AFP Around 4.5 billion years ago a cloud of frozen pebbles began to join forces, gradually forming two bodies - Ultima and Thule. Slowing turning, they eventually touched at each other at what mission geology manager Jeff Moore called an "extremely slow speed" – maybe just one to a few miles per hour. If such a meeting occurred between two cars in a parking lot, he said, no driver would bother writing it up. The lobes, according to Moore, are really just "resting on each other." "New Horizons is like a time machine, taking us back to the birth of the solar system," Moore said. "We are seeing a physical representation of the beginning of planetary formation, frozen in time." Carly Howett, another researcher of the mission, noted that "we can definitely say that Ultima Thule is red," perhaps due to irradiation of ice. The close approach came a half-hour into the new year, and three years after New Horizons' unprecedented swing past Pluto.

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New Horizons: Nasa spacecraft makes historic flyby of Ultima Thule, four billion miles away

New Horizons: Nasa spacecraft makes historic flyby of Ultima Thule, four billion miles awayA Nasa spacecraft has conducted a historic flyby of the farthest, and quite possibly the oldest, cosmic body ever explored by humankind. The US space agency was hoping to take a closer look at a tiny, distant world called Ultima Thule early on Tuesday, hoping the frozen cosmic object will reveal some clues as to how planets took shape 4.6 billion years ago.   It rang in the New Year with a live online broadcast to mark New Horizons' zoom past the mysterious object located about four billion miles away in a dark and frigid region of space known as the Kuiper Belt. The flyby at 12.33 am on Tuesday (5.33am GMT) took place about a billion miles beyond Pluto, which was until now the most faraway world ever visited up close by a spacecraft. "Go New Horizons!" said lead scientist Alan Stern as a crowd including kids dressed in space costumes blew party horns and cheered at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland to mark the moment when the spacecraft aimed its cameras at the distant space rock. Real-time video of the actual flyby was impossible, since it takes more than six hours for a signal sent from Earth to reach the spaceship and another six hours for the response to arrive. "Anything's possible out there in this very unknown region," John Spencer, deputy project scientist for New Horizons, told reporters on Monday at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland. Brian May discusses the upcoming New Horizon's flyby of the Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule Credit: Reuters A solo track recorded by legendary Queen guitarist Brian May – who also holds an advanced degree in astrophysics – was released just after midnight to accompany a video simulation as Nasa commentators describe the close pass. "This is a night none of us are going to forget," May said. What could mission reveal? Hurtling through space at a speed of 32,000 miles per hour, the spacecraft aims to make its closest approach within 2,200 miles of the surface of Ultima Thule. Dr Stern, the lead planetary scientist on the New Horizons mission, told reporters that Ultima Thule is unique because it is a relic from the early days of the solar system and could provide answers about the origins of other planets. In less than 48 hours, New Horizons will make history! The team at @JHUAPL is preparing for the #NewYears flyby of #UltimaThule, the farthest object explored by a spacecraft ever – 4 billion miles from the Sun and ~1 billion miles from Pluto. pic.twitter.com/3EiB2bmOKy— NASA New Horizons (@NASANewHorizons) December 30, 2018 Temperatures are freezing – almost absolute zero or -273C - which means scientists hope it proves to be a time capsule. "The object is in such a deep freeze that it is perfectly preserved from its original formation," he said. "Everything we are going to learn about Ultima – from its composition to its geology to how it was originally assembled, whether it has satellites and an atmosphere and those kinds of things – are going to teach us about the original formation conditions of objects in the solar system." Huge challenges The encounter itself is risky, and if the spacecraft were to collide with a speck of space debris as small as a grain of rice, it could be destroyed instantly, mission managers warned. For that reason, Dr Stern said he and his colleagues are "on pins and needles to see how this turns out." The first signal back to Earth should come about 10 hours after the flyby, around 9.45 am (1445 GMT). Only then will Nasa know if New Horizons survived the close pass. Seven instruments on board will hopefully record high-resolution images and gather data about its size and composition. The Kuiper Belt object nicknamed "Ultima Thule," indicated by the crosshairs at center, with stars surrounding it on Aug. 16, 2018 Credit: AP But the flyby will be fast – at a speed of nine miles per second. As a result, many of the pictures taken will likely be of empty space. That's because the team on the ground will be trying to capture a 12- to 22-mile-wide world some four billion miles away.  At closest approach, New Horizons is expected to take nearly 900 photos at the highest resolution – and Ultima Thule is expected to appear in a few. "We're rendezvousing with something that's a mountain draped in black velvet in almost pitch-dark conditions, and we're screaming up to it [..] within 2 seconds of perfection," Dr Stern told the Washington Post. "You can't get any better than that." Despite the tough task, the team is confident. “I think we're good,” Marc Buie, an astronomer working to pin down Ultima Thule’s position, told the New York Times. “I think we're better than good.” What does it look like?  Scientists are not sure what Ultima Thule (pronounced TOO-lee) looks like – whether it is cratered or smooth, or even if it is a single object or a cluster. It was discovered in 2014 with the help of the Hubble Space Telescope, and is believed to be 12-20 miles in size. A blurred and pixelated image released on Monday, taken from 1.2 million miles away, has intrigued scientists because it appears to show an elongated blob, not a round space rock. Astronomers believe it is either made up of two objects touching each other, or perhaps even a binary system, in which two objects orbit each other. “It’s really puzzling, because we know the shape is irregular,” Dr Stern said. Even clearer images should be in hand over the next three days. Scientists decided to study it with New Horizons after the spaceship completed its main mission of flying by Pluto in 2015, returning the most detailed images ever taken of the dwarf planet. Dr Stern said the goal is to take images of Ultima that are three times the resolution the team had for Pluto. Launched in January 2006, New Horizons embarked on a 4 billion mile journey toward the solar system's frigid, faraway edge to study the dwarf planet Pluto and its five moons. During a 2015 fly-by, the probe found Pluto to be slightly larger than previously thought. In March, it revealed that methane-rich dunes were on the icy dwarf planet's surface. Frontier of planetary science Ultima Thule is named for a mythical, far-northern island in medieval literature and cartography, according to Nasa. "Ultima Thule means ’beyond Thule’ – beyond the borders of the known world – symbolising the exploration of the distant Kuiper Belt and Kuiper Belt objects that New Horizons is performing, something never before done," the US space agency said in a statement. According to project scientist Hal Weaver of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, humans didn’t even know the Kuiper Belt – a vast ring of relics from the formation days of the solar system – existed until the 1990s. "This is the frontier of planetary science," said Weaver. "We finally have reached the outskirts of the solar system, these things that have been there since the beginning and have hardly changed – we think. We will find out." New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern speaks during an overview of the New Horizons Mission Credit: Getty In an editorial in The New York Times, Dr Stern recalled that December 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the first time humans ever explored another world, when US astronauts orbited the Moon aboard Apollo 8. "New Horizons will continue in that legacy," Dr Stern wrote. "As you celebrate New Year’s Day, cast an eye upward and think for a moment about the amazing things our country and our species can do when we set our minds to it." Listen to Brian May's new music The Queen guitarist  is releasing his first official solo work in two decades to mark the occasion. May, who is as passionate about science as he is about music, said he didn't know if "anyone's going to like it yet". Dr Stern, who first suggested creating the track, was among the few who had listened to it. “I have been bouncing it off Alan all the way," he told Newsweek. "He's made some comments – some very interesting comments, because of course he comes from a completely different world from me. And he's been liking it, which is great. “I find myself in an unusual place because I’m deeply immersed in music – and have been all my life – but I’m also deeply immersed in astronomy and astrophysics.” Creating a single inspired by the New Horizons probe was “an amazing opportunity for me to combine the two,” May added. Woven into the recording are words from Stephen Hawking, including a message from the scientist to the New Horizons team in 2015 after the successful Pluto mission. “He said exactly what was in my mind,” May said. “In another part of his message – which actually nobody has heard yet – he said, ‘we do this because we are human and because we need to know.'" What comes next? The huge trove of data that New Horizons sends back is hoped to keep scientists busy for the next one and a half years.  But its journey is far from over – barring any disasters.  Nasa is hoping New Horizons can go on to investigate other objects in the Kuiper Belt. "The spacecraft is very healthy, it's not using any of its back-up systems and it has power and fuel to operate for close to 20 more years," Dr Stern said. "There's a lot of future exploration ahead for New Horizons."

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Beyond Pluto: Spacecraft to fly by distant space rock 'Ultima Thule' on New Year's Day

Beyond Pluto: Spacecraft to fly by distant space rock 'Ultima Thule' on New Year's DayNASA's unmanned New Horizon spacecraft, now zooming into outer space beyond Pluto, will fly by a small space rock known as Ultima Thule on New Year's.

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The government shutdown is keeping NASA's New Horizons spacecraft in the dark

The government shutdown is keeping NASA's New Horizons spacecraft in the darkAlthough NASA will be unable to broadcast the New Horizons spacecraft as it approaches Ultima Thule, the mission will continue.

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NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft is now flying through the stars

NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft is now flying through the starsVoyager 2, at 11 billion miles from Earth, has entered the stars.  Monday morning NASA announced that the legendary exploration spacecraft had left a protective bubble produced by the sun's wind and energy, called the heliosphere, and is now hurtling through interstellar space.  Voyager 2 is the second spacecraft to ever reach the outer limits of the solar system and enter into the interstellar wilderness. Voyager 2's counterpart, Voyager 1, previously entered the stars in 2012.  "This is what we've all been waiting for," Suzanne Dodd, NASA's Voyager project manager, said in a statement. "Now we’re looking forward to what we’ll be able to learn from having both probes outside the heliopause.” The @NASAVoyager 2 probe no longer feels the solar wind & is flying through the interstellar space between the stars. It carries a working instrument providing 1st-of-its-kind observations of the nature of this gateway. Here's a look by the numbers: t.co/DuNBYPaXQj #AGU18 pic.twitter.com/GJGIgDpSHD — NASA (@NASA) December 10, 2018 Technically, however, Voyager 2 is still in the distant realms of the solar system. There are large icy objects out here, collectively known as the Oort Cloud, that are still under the gravitational influence of the sun.  Both Voyager crafts, then, aren't expected to leave the solar system anytime soon. NASA suspects it will take some 30,000 years for the Voyagers to travel beyond the Oort Cloud, and enter farther into uncharted territory.  Out beyond the heliopause, however, the Voyager craft can give NASA scientists a better idea of what it's like at the beginnings of interstellar space, and how the sun's particles and energy, or solar wind, interact with the constant flow of particles from deep, interstellar space. "To have the Voyagers sending back information about the edge of the Sun’s influence gives us an unprecedented glimpse of truly uncharted territory,” Nicola Fox, director of the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters, said in a statement.  The solar system and beyond.Image: NASAA specialized instrument aboard Voyager 2, the Plasma Science Experiment, played an important role in confirming that Voyager 2 had left the protective heliosphere. The instrument observed a "deep decline" in solar particles after Nov. 5, 2018, confirming the craft had entered the interstellar realm.  Both Voyagers were intended to explore the solar system for five years, but 41 years later, are still alive and sending messages back to Earth. The spacecraft are powered by slowly-decaying radioactive material, so they're not reliant upon sunlight to stay online.  The spacecraft both carry records coated in gold, with instructions of how to play 90 minutes of human-made music, containing the likes of Bach, The Najavo, and the scintillating rock and roll of Chuck Berry — should any intelligent life ever come across either of the ancient craft in the vastness of interstellar space.  WATCH: Ever wonder how the universe might end?

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Cheers as Mars InSight spacecraft lands on Red Planet

Cheers as Mars InSight spacecraft lands on Red PlanetCheers and applause erupted at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on Monday as a waist-high unmanned lander, called InSight, touched down on Mars, capping a nearly seven-year journey from design to launch to landing. The dramatic arrival of the $ 993 million spacecraft — designed to listen for quakes and tremors as a way to unveil the Red Planet’s inner mysteries, how it formed billions of years ago and, by extension, how other rocky planets like Earth took shape — marked the eighth successful landing on Mars in NASA’s history. “Touchdown confirmed,” a mission control operator at NASA said, as pent-up anxiety and excitement surged through the room, and dozens of scientists leapt from their seats to embrace each other.

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NASA’s InSight Spacecraft Lands Successfully On Mars After 300-Million-Mile Journey

NASA’s InSight Spacecraft Lands Successfully On Mars After 300-Million-Mile JourneyAfter nearly seven months and more than 300 million miles, NASA's InSight

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Elon Musk tweets new images of SpaceX's forthcoming BFR spacecraft

Elon Musk tweets new images of SpaceX's forthcoming BFR spacecraftThat's one big effing rocket. With the imminent reveal of the mystery passenger who will be flying around the moon in SpaceX's forthcoming BFR, Elon Musk tweeted two new renders of the spacecraft. SEE ALSO: SpaceX books its first passenger to fly around the moon The 106 metre (347 feet) long ship was first announced last year, and Musk said the ship will contain up to 40 cabins which will have enough space for 100 people.  BFR's booster will be powered by 31 Raptor engines, while the ship itself will have 7 Raptor engines, which appear to be arranged like a honeycomb. pic.twitter.com/dUpiavvM1Z — Elon Musk (@elonmusk) September 17, 2018 pic.twitter.com/d1KEp44zjm — Elon Musk (@elonmusk) September 17, 2018 In another tweet, Musk confirmed a forward-moving wing near the nose that appears to retract or expand when required. Forward moving wing — Elon Musk (@elonmusk) September 17, 2018 You might've already spotted SpaceX's new render of the BFR ship, when the company announced that it had signed a passenger to fly around the moon on Thursday. Musk hinted it might be a Japanese passenger, prompting Twitter to throw out names of very rich people like entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa and legendary video game designer Hideo Kojima. SpaceX has signed the world’s first private passenger to fly around the Moon aboard our BFR launch vehicle—an important step toward enabling access for everyday people who dream of traveling to space. Find out who’s flying and why on Monday, September 17. pic.twitter.com/64z4rygYhk — SpaceX (@SpaceX) September 14, 2018 SpaceX will reveal the identity of the passenger on Monday, Sept. 17 at 6 p.m. PT via webcast.  Is it you? WATCH: Someone designed a toiletry kit you actually will want to use

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