Solar System: Things to Know This Week

From the people who work for us, to ESA’s ExoMars, to phases of the moon, learn more about the solar system. 

1. NASA Is More Than Astronauts

Our employees engage in a very wide range of work, and they come from a variety of backgrounds. To meet some of them and learn how they came to work for us, follow the #NASAProud tag on social media.

+ Learn about job opportunities and why NASA employees love working there
+ Get to know the people who explore the solar system

2. ExoMars Is Cleared for Landing 

A joint project between the European Space Agency and Russia’s Roscosmos space agency, ExoMars 2016 will enter orbit around the Red Planet on Oct. 19. The mission includes the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Schiaparelli entry, descent and landing demonstrator. TGO will make a detailed inventory of Mars’ atmospheric gases, looking especially for rare gases like methane to help determine whether that methane stems from a geological or biological source. The orbiter also carries a pair of transmitters provided by NASA. The Schiaparelli lander separated from TGO on Oct. 16, entering the atmosphere for a six-minute descent to a region in Meridiani Planum, not far from NASA’s Opportunity rover. Schiaparelli will test landing technologies in preparation for future missions, including a heatshield, parachute, propulsion system and a crushable structure.

+ Go along for the ride

3. This Just in From Jupiter

Mission managers for our Juno mission to Jupiter have decided to postpone the burn of its main rocket motor originally scheduled for Oct. 19. Engineers want to carefully examine telemetry from a pair of sticky helium valves before the maneuver, which will reduce the time it takes Juno to orbit Jupiter from about 53 days to 14 days. The next opportunity for the burn would be during its close flyby of Jupiter on Dec. 11. Meanwhile, the spacecraft is still gathering data about Jupiter, and Juno will still swing close by the giant planet on Oct. 19.

+ Read more

4. It’s Just a Phase 

The moon was full on Oct. 16. This month’s full moon is sometimes called the Harvest Moon or Hunter’s Moon.

+ See a video showing all of this year’s lunar
+ Learn what causes the moon’s phases

5. Free to Ride

Did you know that NASA offers several other fascinating (and free) online experiences, all based on actual data from real missions. Here are a few to explore:

+ Mars Trek
+ Vesta Trek
+ Lunaserv Global Explorer
+ Deep Space Network (DSN) Now
+ Spacecraft 3D app

Discover the full list of 10 things to know about our solar system this week HERE.

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space:

Desert trial for ESA Mars rover

Next week will see ESA’s most ambitious planetary rover test yet. Robotic exploration of a Mars-like desert in South America will be overseen from the UK, providing experience for future missions to the Red Planet.

The rover faces the desolate Atacama Desert in northern Chile, one of the closest terrestrial matches for Mars. Among the driest places on Earth, it lacks any vegetation and its red–brown soil and rocks make it look even more like Mars.

The aim is to build up experience in operating rovers on a planet, which requires a very different way of working from a satellite mission.

For added pressure on the rover’s remote overseers – based at the Satellite Applications Catapult facility in Harwell, UK, next to ESA’s European Centre for Space Applications and Telecommunications – each day of the five-day  test will be treated as equivalent to two Mars days, or ‘sols’.

For each sol they will first downlink data then prepare a set of commands for the next sol that the rover will then carry out on its own.

The trial is intended to develop technologies and expertise for future Mars missions in general, but for added realism it is using ESA’s 2018 ExoMars rover as its ‘reference mission’.

An early prototype of the six-wheeled ExoMars rover will be put through its paces, fitted with prototypes of three of its scientific instruments: a panoramic camera for stereo 3D imaging, a ground-penetrating radar to probe subsurface geology, and a close-up imager for studying subsurface samples to a resolution of a thousandth of a millimetre.

These three instruments will work together to select a sample site with outcrops of bedrock beside looser material. A human-operated hand drill will gather underground samples for the rover to examine – although this human intervention will remain invisible to the remote operators.

“This field trial is about optimising the use of typical instruments and equipment aboard a Mars rover and generating a set of commands for the rover to execute the following day,” explains Michel van Winnendael, overseeing the Sample Acquisition Field Experiment with a Rover, or SAFER, project for ESA.

Image credit: ESA-Michel van Winnendael
This glorious map helps you keep track of every space mission in the Solar System
We’ve come so far.
By Jacinta Bowler

Space exploration is pretty amazing right now. Just yesterday, we launched the ExoMars 2016 spacecraft, which will hunt for signs of life on Mars, and by now, the Voyager 1 spacecraft is likely way out in interstellar space. NASA recently announced that it plans to visit Europa, one of the most promising candidates in our Solar System to host life, and even NASA’s chief scientist thinks we’ll find alien life within 20 to 30 years, as long as we keep exploring.

But how do you keep track of all these awesome space missions? To help out,the guys at Pop Chart Lab have created this beautiful poster showing our space exploration to date. It spans all the way from 1959 to 2015, and features over 100 exploratory probes, landers, and rovers.

As you can see on the poster below, the majority of our machines never leave Earth’s orbit. There are a whole lot of crowded lines near our planet, each of which belongs to a space probe or explorer of some kind. But as you get further from Earth, there are less and less of these brave explorers, and you get to see just how far humanity has travelled into our Solar System.


Sensor Being Developed to Check for Life on Mars

Signs of life on the Martian surface would still be visible even after bacteria were zapped with a potentially fatal dose of radiation, according to new research — if life ever existed there, of course.

Using “model” bacteria expected to resemble what microbes could look like on the Red Planet, the research team used a Raman spectrometer — an instrument type that the ExoMars rover will carry in 2018 — to see how the signal from the bacteria change as they get exposed to more and more radiation. 

The bottom line is the study authors believe the European Space Agency rover’s instrument would be capable of seeing bacteria on Mars — from the past or the present — if the bacteria were there in the first place.

Readings from the NASA Mars Curiosity rover recently found that humans on the surface of Mars would have a higher risk of cancer due to the increased radiation level on the surface. Mars does not have a global magnetic field to deflect radiation from solar flares, nor a thick atmosphere to shelter the surface.

Full Article

Credit: ESA/NASA/Elizabeth Howell
Mars methane mission lifts off
Europe and Russia launch a joint mission to the Red Planet to investigate whether methane in the Mars atmosphere comes from microbial life.

Europe and Russia have launched a joint mission to the Red Planet.

The satellite, called the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), lifted off from Baikonur in Kazakhstan at 09:31 GMT.

The probe will investigate whether the methane in the world’s atmosphere is coming from a geological source or is being produced by microbes.

If all goes well, the two space powers expect to follow up this venture with a rover, to be assembled in the UK, which will drill into the surface.

That could launch in 2018, or, as seems increasingly likely, in 2020.

Continue Reading.

Computer glitch triggers guidance error as likely cause of Schiparelli crash.

Its computers being fed false data, Europe’s Schiaparelli lander plummeted more than 3.7 kilometers to its crash landing on Mars, recent analysis by the European Space Agency has announced. During the lander’s Entry, Descent and Landing phase – where onboard computers autonomously control the flight – the inertial measurement unit believed that Schiaparelli had an altitude below the Martian surface, even though it was still in the atmosphere. 

Although this error only lasted a second, the onboard computer released its backshell and parachute and briefly fired its landing thrusters – all many minutes prematurely.

Scientists analyzing the data are still unsure where the error originated from, but are confident this was the cause of the lander’s ultimately unsuccessful landing. However, Schiaparelli successfully transmitted all data it was supposed to up until the moment of impact, technically achieving its primary goal of collecting and recording test data for Martian landing technologies.

The image above shows the spacecraft’s impact crater, including metallic fragments and surface charring. The entry module’s parachute and backshell can be seen in lower left, while the main, front heat shield is seen on lower right. 

Schiaparelli launched in March, 2016 along with the Trace Gas Orbiter; both spacecraft were part of the first half of the ExoMars program, a joint ESA-Russia mission to Mars.

Member states of the European Space Agency will decide in early December whether or not to commit a five-year spending package on the second half of the ExoMars program, which will see another orbiter and Russian-built rover arrive and explore the Red Planet.

Before and after imagery of the Schiaparelli crash site taken by MRO.


Credit: ESA

Three days before arriving at Mars on 19 October 2016, the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) will release its entry, descent and landing demonstrator, Schiaparelli, towards the Red Planet. ExoMars is several missions in one. Its orbiter is a science and relay mission.

The TGO will search for evidence of gases, such as methane, that may be associated with geological or biological processes.

The Schiaparelli lander is a technology demonstrator to test key technologies for future missions to Mars.

For more information: “ExoMars at Mars” video.

How Even a Failed Mars Landing Humanizes Us All

Nothing can break your heart like a Mars ship that goes bad. You spend hundreds of millions of dollars, fly tens of millions of miles, get your lander to within a few thousand feet of the surface of the planet and then…nothing. A crash or a blackout or some kind of malfunction and everything is lost.

That was the sudden sorrow experienced by the thousands of engineers, designers and builders of the joint European-Russian ExoMars probe, when the orbital portion of the two-part spacecraft successfully arrived at Mars and began its two-year mission to sample the planet’s atmosphere, but controllers lost contact with the Schiaparelli lander—named after Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli—on the way down.

Win or lose, space brings us together.

It’s always possible the probe got safely to its intended landing site in Mars’s Meridiani Planum and that the problem is merely a glitchy communications system. That’s certainly the longshot that mission controllers will be investigating before officially declaring the spacecraft dead, but no one is terribly optimistic.

If it’s any consolation to the ExoMars team, it’s that space is hard and Mars has proven itself hardest of all. Since 1960, six different space agencies—from the U.S., Russia, Europe, Japan, India and China—have sent a combined 44 probes to Mars and 25 of them have failed in whole or in part. It’s a mark of the cussedly stubborn human spirit that we keep trying. And it’s a mark too of our refreshingly collaborative nature that more and more, on many matters cosmic, we’re working together.

Continue reading…

Source: TIME
ExoMars '96 Percent' Successful Despite Lander Crash: ESA
ExoMars '96 Percent' Successful Despite Lander Crash: ESA

The ExoMars 2016 mission gets a solid “A” thus far despite the failure of its Schiaparelli lander to touch down softly on the Red Planet, European Space Agency (ESA) officials said.

Schiaparelli stopped communicating with its handlers less than a minute before its planned touchdown Wednesday morning (Oct. 21). While ExoMars team members are still analyzing the lander’s data, early indications suggest that Schiaparelli fired its thrusters for an insufficient amount of time toward the end of the descent and slammed into the Martian surface hard — an interpretation bolstered by photos of the apparent crash site taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

But ESA is accentuating the positive, and there definitely was good news on Wednesday as well. For example, the mission’s Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) began circling Mars that morning after acing a make-or-break, 139-minute-long engine burn.

And Schiaparelli — also known as the entry, descent and landing demonstrator module (EDM) — did manage to return data during the first 5 minutes of its “6 minutes of terror” landing attempt. This information should aid the landing-system design for the life-hunting ExoMars rover, which is scheduled to launch toward the Red Planet in 2020, ESA officials said.

Continue Reading.

Phase one of the ExoMars mission launches to find life on the Red Planet

The ExoMars program consists of two launches to the Red Planet: today’s and one in 2018. Today’s rocket launch carries the Trace Gas Orbiter and the Schiaparelli EDM Lander into space, which will both arrive at Mars in October of this year, according to the ESA. Once there, the Trace Gas Orbiter will put itself into orbit around the planet and measure the types of gases in the atmosphere. Specifically, the orbiter is looking for traces of methane — a potential indicator of biological life on the planetary surface below.

ExoMars Mission: What has been confirmed

TGO is ok, but still unclear the fate of Schiaparelli. More information soon.

From euronews:

20:00 CEST. So far, the ESA has only been able to confirm that its TGO, the Trace Gas Orbiter and the “mother ship” of the Schiaparelli, conducted its burn successfully and is in orbit around Mars. The TGO signal was briefly lost as it flew behind Mars but was reacquired. All of its systems appear to be functioning normally which was celebrated at the ESA Operation Centre in Darmstadt Germany at 5:35 PM local time, but a full confirmation of its operational status is still expected. A confirmation is also needed to ascertain if Schiaparelli landed safely on Mars.

From ESA Operations:
Mars Mission Set to Launch to Study Gases and Storms
The ExoMars 2016 mission to Mars, a collaboration between the European and Russian space agencies, is scheduled to blast off from Kazakhstan on Monday.
By Kenneth Chang

The spacecraft, which consists of an orbiter that will measure methane and other gases in the Martian atmosphere and a lander to study dust storms, will hitch a ride on top of a Russian Proton rocket that is expected to lift off at 3:31 p.m. local time. The European Space Agency will broadcast coverage of the launch on the Internet beginning about an hour before liftoff.

After a journey of seven months, the ExoMars spacecraft will arrive at Mars in October. Three days before arriving, the lander, named Schiaparelli after the 19th-century Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, will separate from the orbiter. It is to enter the atmosphere at 13,000 miles per hour and quickly decelerate on its way to settling down on the surface.

Continue Reading.


T-12 hours - ExoMars prepares for launch.

The first component of Europe and Russia’s joint Mars mission, ExoMars, is set for liftoff from Baikonur Cosmodrome at 5:31 am EDT Monday, March 14. Rollout of the Proton rocket to launch pad 39 at Site 200 occurred Friday, March 11.

ExoMars consists of two spacecraft, the Trace Gas Orbiter and the Schiaparelli lander. Monday’s launch will deliver the two vehicles on a seven-month trajectory to the Red Planet, where it will arrive in October.

Three days before reaching Mars, on October 16, Schiaparelli will separate from the Trace Gas Orbiter. Both spacecraft will arrive on October 19. Schiaparelli will perform an eight-minute entry and descent phase before landing at Meridiani Planum. The lander’s batteries are expected to last four sols, or Martian days. If successful, Schiaparelli will become the first European mission to operate on the martian surface. 

The Trace Gas Orbiter will perform several months of aerobreaking maneuvers before reaching its operational science orbit in late 2017. Once in this orbit, the spacecraft will spend five years mapping the Martian surface for sources of methane. Data from this will help scientists determine where the ExoMars rover will land upon its arrival in 2019.

ExoMars is the only robotic mission to the Red Planet in the 2016 launch window. NASA’s InSight mission was suppose to depart for Mars March 12, but an instrument issue in late 2015 forced the postponement of that mission until the 2018 launch window.

Diagram of the Schiaparelli lander and its instruments. Click here for an in-deth description of the science payloads on the lander.

Original NASA involvement.

When the mission was originally proposed in 2008, ExoMars was an all-NASA project with ESA participation. However, evolution of both space agency’s Mars projects led to a multi-launch mission utilizing an Atlas V rocket. The FY2013 NASA budget forced the agency to cancel their participation in ExoMars due to cost overruns of the James Webb space telescope.

Roscosmos, Russia’s federal space agency, offered to partner with ESA on ExoMars, agreeing to contribute two proton launch vehicles and an additional surface rover.

Launch profile.

Once liftoff occurs at 5:31am, it will take ten minutes for the three-stage Proton to place the Briz-M upper stage and ExoMars into Earth orbit. Briz-M will perform four engine firings over the course of ten and a half hours before deploying the spacecraft on a trans-Mars trajectory at 4:12pm.

The European Space Agency will broadcast the launch beginning at 4:30am EDT here.

Follow along with the mission via their official Twitter account.

For more information on ExoMars, check out ESA’s Mars exploration webpages.


ExoMars 2016 mission launched from Baikonur.