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Solar System: Things to Know This Week

What’s next for NASA? A quick look at some of the big things coming up:

1. We will add to our existing robotic fleet at the Red Planet with the InSight Mars lander set to study the planet’s interior.

This terrestrial planet explorer will address one of the most fundamental issues of planetary and solar system science - understanding the processes that shaped the rocky planets of the inner solar system (including Earth) more than four billion years ago.

2. The Mars 2020 rover will look for signs of past microbial life, gather samples for potential future return to Earth.

The Mars 2020 mission takes the next step by not only seeking signs of habitable conditions on the Red Planet in the ancient past, but also searching for signs of past microbial life itself. The Mars 2020 rover introduces a drill that can collect core samples of the most promising rocks and soils and set them aside in a “cache” on the surface of Mars.

3. The James Webb Space Telescope will be the premier observatory of the next decade, studying the history of our Universe in infrared.

Webb will study every phase in the history of our Universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of our own solar system.

4. The Parker Solar Probe will “touch the Sun,” traveling closer to the surface than any spacecraft before.

This spacecraft, about the size of a small car, will travel directly into the sun’s atmosphere about 4 million miles from our star’s surface. Parker Solar Probe and its four suites of instruments – studying magnetic and electric fields, energetic particles, and the solar wind – will be protected from the Sun’s enormous heat by a 4.5-inch-thick carbon-composite heat shield.

5. Our OSIRIS-REx spacecraft arrives at the near-Earth asteroid Bennu in August 2018, and will return a sample for study in 2023.

This mission will help scientists investigate how planets formed and how life began, as well as improve our understanding of asteroids that could impact Earth.

6. Launching in 2018, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) will search for planets around 200,000 bright, nearby stars.

The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is the next step in the search for planets outside of our solar system (exoplanets), including those that could support life. The mission will find exoplanets that periodically block part of the light from their host stars, events called transits.

7. A mission to Jupiter’s ocean-bearing moon Europa is being planned for launch in the 2020s.

The mission will place a spacecraft in orbit around Jupiter in order to perform a detailed investigation of Europa – a world that shows strong evidence for an ocean of liquid water beneath its icy crust and which could host conditions favorable for life.

8. We will launch our first integrated test flight of the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft, known as Exploration Mission-1.

The Space Launch System rocket will launch with Orion atop it. During Exploration Mission-1, Orion will venture thousands of miles beyond the moon during an approximately three week mission.

9. We are looking at what a flexible deep space gateway near the Moon could be.

We’ve issued a draft announcement seeking U.S. industry-led studies for an advanced solar electric propulsion (SEP) vehicle capability. The studies will help define required capabilities and reduce risk for the 50 kilowatt-class SEP needed for the agency’s near-term exploration goals.

10. Want to know more? Read the full story.

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Solar System: Things to Know This Week

Our Dawn mission to the asteroid belt is no ordinary deep space expedition. 

Instead of traditional chemical rockets, the spacecraft uses sophisticated ion engines for propulsion. This enabled Dawn to become the first mission to orbit not one, but two different worlds — first the giant asteroid Vesta and now the dwarf planet Ceres. Vesta and Ceres formed early in the solar system’s history, and by studying them, the mission is helping scientists go back in time to the dawn of the planets. To mark a decade since Dawn was launched on Sept. 27, 2007, here are 10 things to know about this trailblazing mission.

1. Ion Engines: Not Just for Sci-Fi Anymore

Most rocket engines use chemical reactions for propulsion, which tend to be powerful but short-lived. Dawn’s futuristic, hyper-efficient ion propulsion system works by using electricity to accelerate ions (charged particles) from xenon fuel to a speed seven to 10 times that of chemical engines. Ion engines accelerate the spacecraft slowly, but they’re very thrifty with fuel, using just milligrams of xenon per second (about 10 ounces over 24 hours) at maximum thrust. Without its ion engines, Dawn could not have carried enough fuel to go into orbit around two different solar system bodies. Try your hand at an interactive ion engine simulation.

2. Time Capsules 

Scientists have long wanted to study Vesta and Ceres up close. Vesta is a large, complex and intriguing asteroid. Ceres is the largest object in the entire asteroid belt, and was once considered a planet in its own right after it was discovered in 1801. Vesta and Ceres have significant differences, but both are thought to have formed very early in the history of the solar system, harboring clues about how planets are constructed. Learn more about Ceres and Vesta—including why we have pieces of Vesta here on Earth.

3. Portrait of a Dwarf Planet

This view of Ceres built from Dawn photos is centered on Occator Crater, home of the famous “bright spots.” The image resolution is about 460 feet (140 meters) per pixel.

Take a closer look.

4. What’s in a Name? 

Craters on Ceres are named for agricultural deities from all over the world, and other features carry the names of agricultural festivals. Ceres itself was named after the Roman goddess of corn and harvests (that’s also where the word “cereal” comes from). The International Astronomical Union recently approved 25 new Ceres feature names tied to the theme of agricultural deities. Jumi, for example, is the Latvian god of fertility of the field. Study the full-size map.

5. Landslides or Ice Slides? 

Thanks to Dawn, evidence is mounting that Ceres hides a significant amount of water ice. A recent study adds to this picture, showing how ice may have shaped the variety of landslides seen on Ceres today.

6. The Lonely Mountain 

Ahuna Mons, a 3-mile-high (5-kilometer-high) mountain, puzzled Ceres explorers when they first found it. It rises all alone above the surrounding plains. Now scientists think it is likely a cryovolcano — one that erupts a liquid made of volatiles such as water, instead of rock. “This is the only known example of a cryovolcano that potentially formed from a salty mud mix, and that formed in the geologically recent past,” one researcher said. Learn more.

7. Shining a Light on the Bright Spots 

The brightest area on Ceres, located in the mysterious Occator Crater, has the highest concentration of carbonate minerals ever seen outside Earth, according to studies from Dawn scientists. Occator is 57 miles (92 kilometers) wide, with a central pit about 6 miles (10 kilometers) wide. The dominant mineral of this bright area is sodium carbonate, a kind of salt found on Earth in hydrothermal environments. This material appears to have come from inside Ceres, and this upwelling suggests that temperatures inside Ceres are warmer than previously believed. Even more intriguingly, the results suggest that liquid water may have existed beneath the surface of Ceres in recent geological time. The salts could be remnants of an ocean, or localized bodies of water, that reached the surface and then froze millions of years ago. See more details.

8. Captain’s Log 

Dawn’s chief engineer and mission director, Marc Rayman, provides regular dispatches about Dawn’s work in the asteroid belt. Catch the latest updates here.

9. Eyes on Dawn 

Another cool way to retrace Dawn’s decade-long flight is to download NASA’s free Eyes on the Solar System app, which uses real data to let you go to any point in the solar system, or ride along with any spacecraft, at any point in time—all in 3-D.

10. No Stamp Required

Send a postcard from one of these three sets of images that tell the story of dwarf planet Ceres, protoplanet Vesta, and the Dawn mission overall.

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In about 20 minutes SpaceX will attempt to reuse a rocket booster they’ve already used before. If they succeed it could be a very serious step forward in space exploration capabilities.

Go SpaceX. Pleassssse…

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Every Photo From NASA’s Apollo Missions Are Now on Flickr

The Project Apollo Archive uploaded more than 14,000 high-resolution images the astronauts took during NASA’s Apollo Missions of the 1960s and 70s. The collection includes every never-seen-before photo shot with the Hasselblad cameras on the lunar surface, from Earth and lunar orbit, as well as during the journey between the two. All the photos are unprocessed versions of the original scans.
Image courtesy: NASA/JSC

Today we successfully tested one of our RS-25 engines, four of which will help power our Space Launch System (SLS) to deep space destinations, like Mars! This 500-second engine test concludes a summer of successful hot fire testing for flight controllers at our Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.

The controller serves as the “brain” of the engine, communicating with SLS flight computers to ensure engines are performing at needed levels. The test marked another step toward the nation’s return to human deep-space exploration missions.

We launched a series of summer tests with a second flight controller unit hot fire at the end of May, then followed up with three additional tests. The flight controller tests are critical preparation for upcoming SLS flights to deep space– the uncrewed Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), which will serve as the first flight for the new rocket carrying an uncrewed Orion spacecraft, and EM-2, which will transport a crew of astronauts aboard the Orion spacecraft. 

Each SLS rocket is powered at launch by four RS-25 engines firing simultaneously and working in conjunction with a pair of solid rocket boosters. The engines generate a combined 2 million pounds of thrust at liftoff. With the boosters, total thrust at liftoff will exceed 8 million pounds!

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SpaceX Sends Super Science to Space Station!

SpaceX is scheduled to launch its Dragon spacecraft PACKED with super cool research and technology to the International Space Station June 1 from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. New solar panels, investigations that study neutron stars and even fruit flies are on the cargo list. Let’s take a look at what other bits of science are making their way to the orbiting laboratory 250 miles above the Earth…

New solar panels to test concept for more efficient power source

Solar panels generate power well, but they can be delicate and large when used to power a spacecraft or satellites. This technology demonstration is a solar panel concept that is lighter and stores more compactly for launch than the solar panels currently in use. 

Roll-Out Solar Array (ROSA) has solar cells on a flexible blanket and a framework that rolls out like a tape measure and snap into place, and could be used to power future space vehicles.  

Investigation to Study Composition of Neutron Stars

Neutron stars, the glowing cinders left behind when massive stars explode as supernovas, contain exotic states of matter that are impossible to replicate in any lab. NICER studies the makeup of these stars, and could provide new insight into their nature and super weird behavior.

Neutron stars emit X-ray radiation, enabling the NICER technology to observe and record information about its structure, dynamics and energetics. 

Experiment to Study Effect of New Drug on Bone Loss

When people and animals spend lots of space, they experience bone density loss. In-flight exercise can prevent it from getting worse, but there isn’t a therapy on Earth or in space that can restore bone that is already lost.

The Systemic Therapy of NELL-1 for osteoporosis (Rodent Research-5) investigation tests a new drug that can both rebuild bone and block further bone loss, improving health for crew members.

Research to Understand Cardiovascular Changes

Exposure to reduced gravity environments can result in cardiovascular changes such as fluid shifts, changes in total blood volume, heartbeat and heart rhythm irregularities, and diminished aerobic capacity.

The Fruit Fly Lab-02 study will use the fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) to better understand the underlying mechanisms responsible for the adverse effects of prolonged exposure to microgravity on the heart. Fruit flies are effective model organisms, and we don’t mean on the fashion runway. Want to see how 1,000 bottles of fruit flies were prepared to go to space? Check THIS out.

Space Life-Support Investigation

Currently, the life-support systems aboard the space station require special equipment to separate liquids and gases. This technology utilizes rotating and moving parts that, if broken or otherwise compromised, could cause contamination aboard the station. 

The Capillary Structures investigation studies a new method of water recycling and carbon dioxide removal using structures designed in specific shapes to manage fluid and gas mixtures. 

Earth-Observation Tools

Orbiting approximately 250 miles above the Earth’s surface, the space station provides pretty amazing views of the Earth. The Multiple User System for Earth Sensing (MUSES) facility hosts Earth-viewing instruments such as high-resolution digital cameras, hyperspectral imagers, and provides precision pointing and other accommodations.

This investigation can produce data that could be used for maritime domain awareness, agricultural awareness, food security, disaster response, air quality, oil and gas exploration and fire detection. 

Watch the launch live HERE! For all things space station science, follow @ISS_Research on Twitter.

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Antares Rocket With Cygnus Spacecraft Launches

The Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket, with the Cygnus cargo spacecraft aboard, is seen in this false color infrared image, as it launches from Pad-0A of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS), Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013, NASA Wallops Flight Facility, Virginia. Cygnus is on its way to rendezvous with the space station. The spacecraft will deliver about 1,300 pounds (589 kilograms) of cargo, including food and clothing, to the Expedition 37 crew.

Image Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls