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So No New Earth Trojans, But OSIRIS-REx’s MapCam Surpassed Expectations

Asteroid 12 Victoria, imaged by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on Feb. 11. Credits: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona.

Remember when I mentioned that NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft was going to be scanning for “Trojan” asteroids at Earth-Sun L4? Well the results are in and survey says: no new Trojans (besides 2010 TK7, which we already knew about.) But the search wasn’t in vain—it gave mission scientists a chance put the spacecraft’s OCAMS instruments to the test and they passed with flying colors.

In fact the MapCam camera did so well it was able to image 17 main belt asteroids from L4, some two full magnitudes dimmer than expected.

“The Earth-Trojan Asteroid Search was a significant success for the OSIRIS-REx mission,” said OSIRIS-REx principal investigator Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, Tucson. “In this first practical exercise of the mission’s science operations, the mission team learned so much about this spacecraft’s capabilities and flight operations that we are now ahead of the game for when we get to Bennu.”

Read the full story on the OSIRIS-REx site here: OSIRIS-REx Asteroid Search Tests Instruments, Science Team

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2017 NASA Transition Act Includes Plans to Preserve Apollo Sites

Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan saluting the U.S. flag on the Moon, Dec. 11, 1972. (NASA)

From July 1969 to December 1972, 12 American astronauts landed in six different locations on the lunar surface as part of NASA’s Apollo program, leaving their footprints and taking samples and data that are still being used today to learn about the Moon. The Apollo landing sites remain exactly as they were left over four decades ago—footprints, rover tracks, discarded equipment and all—and with a new generation of space explorers around the world setting their sights on the Moon it’s important that we make sure these six off-world locations are preserved, just as would be done with any historic artifact.

“President Donald Trump on Tuesday, March 21 signed the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017, which includes a section [Sec. 831] directing the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) [a position yet to be filled] to assess the issues that relate to “protecting and preserving historically important Apollo program lunar landing sites and Apollo program artifacts residing on the lunar surface, including those pertaining to Apollo 11 and Apollo 17,” the first and last missions to land astronauts on the [M]oon.” (via CollectSpace)

While this is only a plan for an assessment to take place, it’s a(nother) first step in making sure our first footprints on another world aren’t lost to careless or malicious future lunar visitors, whether human or robotic.

You can find the full text of the bill here.

Read the full story on CollectSpace: White House to look at how best to ‘protect and preserve’ Apollo moon landing sites

NASA Looks to Partner with Russia on Venus Exploration

The Russian Academy of Sciences’ Space Research Institute (IKI) Venera-D mission concept includes a Venus orbiter that would operate for up to three years, and a lander designed to survive the incredibly harsh conditions a spacecraft would encounter on Venus’ surface for a few hours. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In its long history of space exploration the United States has never had a robotic mission sent to the surface of Venus. Flybys, orbiting spacecraft, and atmospheric probes yes, but to date nothing from NASA has operated on the extreme, hellish surface of the second rock from the Sun. Russia, on the other hand, has successfully landed on Venus ten times, eight with its Venera program and the ninth and tenth in 1984–85 with the Vega 1 and 2 missions. Because of its long-running expertise, the U.S. is looking to partner with Russia on a brand-new Venera mission, Venera-D, which in 2025 would send an orbiter, a lander, and possibly even an inflatable airship to Venus to explore its exotic and overheated environments.

“While Venus is known as our ‘sister planet,’ we have much to learn, including whether it may have once had oceans and harbored life,” said Jim Green, NASA’s director of Planetary Science. “By understanding the processes at work at Venus and Mars, we will have a more complete picture about how terrestrial planets evolve over time and obtain insight into the Earth’s past, present and future.”

Read the full story from NASA here: NASA Studying Shared Venus Science Objectives with Russian Space Research Institute

Iapetus: Saturn’s Stained Moon

Color image of Iapetus captured by Cassini on March 11, 2017 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Jason Major)

Saturn’s “yin-yang” moon Iapetus (pronounced eye-AH-pe-tus) is seen in this image, a color composite made from raw images acquired by Cassini’s narrow-angle camera on March 11, 2017.

The color difference on Iapetus is due to a fine coating of dark material that falls onto its leading hemisphere, sent its way by the distant moon Phoebe traveling within the recently-discovered giant diffuse ring. This dark coating of dust causes that half of Iapetus’ surface to warm up ever-so-slightly-more than the other, making the underlying water ice evaporate and redeposit on the other side. This in turn reinforces the cycle…a positive feedback loop.

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A Red Cent on a Red Planet: Curiosity’s 1909 Lincoln Penny

Curiosity’s calibration target, imaged with MAHLI on March 9, 2017 (mission sol 1632). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

On March 9, 2017, NASA’s Curiosity rover took this picture with its turret-mounted MAHLI camera of the calibration target installed near the “shoulder” of its robotic arm. In addition to color chips and a metric line graph, the target also includes a U.S. coin: a 1909 Lincoln penny, adhered heads-up.

Curiosity’s coin isn’t just for good luck though; it’s also a nod to geologists who typically use familiar objects in field photos to help determine scale. (Curiosity is, after all, one of only two working robot geologists on all of Mars!)

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Our Best Ever Look at Pan, Saturn’s Little “UFO”

Images of the shepherd moon Pan captured by Cassini on March 7, 2017. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI. Animation by Jason Major.)

Behold the almighty Pan! Thanks to Cassini’s ring-grazing orbits we’ve just received the highest-resolution images ever of Pan—which, at only about 17 miles (27 km) across admittedly isn’t very “almighty” but its flying saucer-like shape is really quite fascinating!

The raw images above were acquired by Cassini on March 7, 2017 and received on Earth on March 8. I assembled them into an animation to show some of the 3D shape of the little shepherd moon, which orbits Saturn inside the 200 mile wide Encke Gap in the A ring.

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