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NASA’s Plan to Pluck a Boulder Off An Asteroid and Orbit It Around the Moon

Rendering of NASA's Asteroid Redirect Vehicle with a boulder in its grip. (NASA)

Rendering of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Vehicle with a boulder in its grip. (NASA)

NASA may have its sights set on Mars, but before it can send astronauts to the Red Planet it needs to hone its skills with long-distance, long-duration human spaceflight beyond low-Earth orbit. Enter the “missing link” in exploration evolution: the Asteroid Redirect Mission, or ARM, NASA’s plan for developing the technology and experience for Mars while learning more about the composition of near-Earth asteroids – and potentially also how best to safely alter their courses.

(You know, in case we ever have to one day and Bruce, Ben, and Owen aren’t available.)

This week NASA announced its choice to go with the second of its two options for the mission: the retrieval of a boulder from the surface of an asteroid by a robotic craft, which will then tow the sample back to the Moon where it will be put into orbit and researched by astronauts.*

“The Asteroid Redirect Mission will provide an initial demonstration of several spaceflight capabilities we will need to send astronauts deeper into space, and eventually, to Mars,” said NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot. “The option to retrieve a boulder from an asteroid will have a direct impact on planning for future human missions to deep space and begin a new era of spaceflight.”

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No Signal Yet From Philae (But ESA Isn’t Giving Up)

Philae's view from its current location on comet 67P/C-G. ( ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA)

Philae’s view from its current location on comet 67P/C-G, captured by one of its three CIVA cameras. (ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA)

The first attempt by ESA and Rosetta to hear back from Philae has turned up only radio silence – but that doesn’t necessarily mean the lander is on permanent shutdown. It may just be that it’s still too cold and dark where Philae is to have sufficiently warmed up its components for reactivation.

“It was a very early attempt; we will repeat this process until we receive a response from Philae,” said DLR (Germany’s Aerospace agency) Project Manager Stephan Ulamec. “We have to be patient.”

After landing in an as yet unconfirmed location on comet 67P on November 12, 2014, Philae performed all of its primary science tasks before running out of battery power and entering a hibernation “safe” mode. Its reawakening is anticipated by mission engineers as the comet gets closer to the Sun over the next several months.

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NASA’s MAVEN Spacecraft Spots Mars’ Secret Invisible Aurora

In Dec. 2014 MAVEN observed auroras on Mars glowing in ultraviolet wavelengths (University of Colorado)

In Dec. 2014 MAVEN observed auroras on Mars glowing in ultraviolet wavelengths (University of Colorado)

Only a day after skywatchers in mid- to upper-latitudes around the world were treated to a particularly energetic display of auroras on the night of March 17 as a result of an intense geomagnetic storm, researchers from the University of Colorado announced findings from NASA’s MAVEN mission of auroral action observed on Mars – although in invisible ultraviolet wavelengths rather than visible light.

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Closing In on Planet Pluto: an Interview with New Horizons PI Alan Stern

Artist's impression of the New Horizons flyby in July 2015. (NASA/SwRI)

Artist’s impression of the New Horizons flyby in July 2015. (NASA/SwRI)

After more than nine years of traveling through space the New Horizons spacecraft is now in the home stretch of its journey, with less than 120 days and 143 million kilometers to go before it makes its historic flyby of the Pluto system on July 14. It will be the first time we get a good close-up look at the distant world which had for over seven decades held reign over the frozen edges of our Solar System as the outermost planet, much like its namesake governed the cold darkness of the mythological Greek underworld.

Discovered on February 18, 1930, the ninth planet Pluto lost its “full” planetary status in August 2006 as the result of a highly-contested decision by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to create a new class of “dwarf planets,” of which Pluto, Ceres, and the then-recently-discovered Eris became charter members. Seven months after New Horizons launched, the edict did not sit well with both many members of the planetary science community and the public, who were suddenly informed that little Pluto just didn’t measure up and had to be let go… nothing serious, right?

Wrong. It was a serious scientific issue for many people, and especially for Dr. Alan Stern, Associate Vice President of Space Science and Engineering at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, CO and principal investigator of New Horizons. And understandably so – Dr. Stern’s planetary exploration mission is on its way to Pluto after all, and what it’s expected to encounter is far more complex than what’s implied by the diminutive moniker of “dwarf planet” (which, oddly enough, was coined by Stern himself in 1990.)

I had a change to talk briefly with Dr. Stern on Friday, March 13 – which, incidentally, was the 85th anniversary of Pluto’s first announcement to the world – and got some insight from him on the mission and what we can expect from the upcoming flyby, as well as his views on the whole “planet/dwarf planet” thing. (And yes, it certainly does still matter!)
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Ground-Based Radar Reveals the Surface of Venus

Radar map of Venus' surface made from signals sent from Puerto Rico and received in West Virginia (NRAO)

Radar map of Venus’ surface made from signals sent from Puerto Rico and received in West Virginia (Credits: B. Campbell, Smithsonian, et al., NRAO/AUI/NSF, Arecibo)

These days if you look toward the west after sunset you’ll see a bright star that’s the first to appear in the sky – except it’s not a star at all but our neighboring planet, Venus. Covered in a dense layer of thick clouds, Venus not only reflects a lot of sunlight but also keeps its surface well concealed from visible-light observations. But with the capabilities of powerful ground-based radar observatories, scientists have been able to make global maps of Venus from right here on Earth… no rockets necessary!

Read the rest of my article on Discovery News here.

Ganymede’s Aurorae Hint at an Ocean Ten Times Deeper than Earth’s

Illustration of Ganymede's auroral ovals, the stability of which hint at a global underground ocean. Credit: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI).

Illustration of Ganymede’s auroral ovals, the stability of which hint at a global underground ocean. Credit: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI).

It’s long been suspected that Jupiter’s giant moon Ganymede may harbor a subsurface ocean of liquid water beneath its icy yet hard-as-rock crust, and now some ingenious observations with the Hubble Space Telescope are making an even more convincing case for it!

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