1st May 2022

Meet ignimbrite, a volcanic rock found here on Earth and potentially on Mars.

An unusual rock type spotted by two Mars rovers may indicate that the Martian landscape was shaped by extremely violent volcanic eruptions.

The Nili Fossae region of Mars, which includes the Jezero Crater that NASA’s Perseverance rover is currently exploring, is filled with bedrock laden with the volcanic mineral olivine. That same olivine-rich bedrock was also found at the Gusev Crater, where NASA’s Spirit Rover roamed until its demise in 2010. But the connection between the regions wasn’t made until now, by a team led by planetary geologist Steve Ruff of Arizona State University. The researchers examined data from multiple Mars rovers to confirm the geologic similarities, which indicates the local rocks might have formed by similar processes. Then the scientists compared Spirit’s images of the Gusev Crater rock with images of Earth rocks.

“That was a eureka moment,” Ruff said in a statement. “I was seeing the same kind of textures in the rocks of Gusev crater as those in a very specific kind of volcanic rock found here on Earth.”

That rock is ignimbrite, which is created from the ash, pumice and pyroclastic flows of powerful volcanic eruptions. “No one had previously suggested ignimbrites as an explanation for olivine-rich bedrock on Mars,” Ruff said. “And it’s possible that this is the kind of rock that the Perseverance rover has been driving around on and sampling for the past year.”

Although researchers have long theorized that volcanism was responsible for producing the Nili Fossae — olivine is, after all, a volcanic mineral — the identification of ignimbrite, if proven accurate, would indicate that the eruptions were more cataclysmic than previously thought.

“Imagine a ground-hugging cloud of hot gasses and nearly molten ash and pumice flowing through the landscape for dozens of miles and piling up in layers up to hundreds of feet thick in just a few days,” Ruff said about eruptions that have produced this type of rock on Earth.

To confirm the presence of ignimbrite on Mars, the scientists say they will have to study the rocks in a terrestrial lab another argument for the planned Mars Sample Return mission to ferry Perseverance’s samples back to Earth.

The results of this study will be published in a paper in the journal Icarus in July.

Source: https://www.space.com/mars-rock-violent-volcanic-eruption-ignimbrite

28th February 2022

Russia halts Soyuz rocket launches from South America over European sanctions on Ukraine invasion

The announcement stalls Soyuz launches from French Guiana with European launch provider Arianespace

“In response to EU sanctions against our enterprises, Roscosmos is suspending cooperation with European partners in organizing space launches from the Kourou cosmodrome and withdrawing its personnel, including the consolidated launch crew, from French Guiana,” Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin said in a Twitter statement on Saturday (Feb. 26) according to a translation from Russian.

The Russian space agency Roscosmos is stopping all Soyuz rocket launches from Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana due to European Union sanctions on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

Russia is also recalling 87 Russian workers from Europe’s South American spaceport in French Guiana who support Soyuz rocket launches for Roscosmos and the Russian companies NPO Lavochkin a, Progress RCC and TsENKI, according to a second Twitter statement from Roscosmos.

“The issue of the departure of Russian employees is being worked out,” Roscosmos wrote. Russia’s moves come as European Union nations, the United States and other countries have levied severe economic sanctions on Russia following the country’s invasion of Ukraine on Thursday (Feb. 24). 

Russia’s Soyuz rockets are used by the European launch provider Arianespace to launch satellites from the Guiana Space Center near Kourou, French Guiana, as well as from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan (where Russia regularly launches its own Soyuz missions). The most recent Soyuz rocket to launch from Guiana Space Center lifted off on Feb. 10 carrying 34 OneWeb internet satellites.

Arianespace, based in France, also uses its own European Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket and Vega rocket for smaller launches from French Guiana. 

Arianespace’s next Soyuz launch was scheduled for early April to launch two Galileo navigation satellites into orbit for the European Union’s Galileo constellation. That mission will almost certainly be delayed due to Russia’s announcement on Saturday. 

Thierry Breton, the European Commissioner for Space, said Russia’s decision to halt Soyuz launches with Europe will not interrupt any services for users of the Galileo satellites or of the E.U.’s Copernicus Earth observation satellite program. 

“I confirm that this decision has no consequences on the continuity and quality of the Galileo and Copernicus services,” Breton said in the statement. “Nor does this decision put the continued development of these infrastructures at risk.”

Breton added that the E.U. and its member states are “ready to act decisively” in order to “protect these critical infrastructures in case of aggression,” and that it will  “continue to develop Ariane 6 and Vega C to ensure Europe’s strategic autonomy in the area of launchers.”

The Ariane 6 rocket is Europe’s successor to the Ariane 5 and is expected to make its first flight sometime later in 2022. The Vega C rocket is a follow-on to Europe’s Vega rocket that is designed to reach more orbits and carry more diverse payloads for the same cost. The European Space Agency and Arianespace are working to develop the Ariane 6 and Vega-C rockets. 

On Friday (Feb. 25), ESA Director-General Josef Aschbacher said in a statement that the European space officials were “closely monitoring what’s happening” in Ukraine while weighing any response. ESA is working closely with Russia’s space program to launch the European ExoMars rover mission to Mars later this year.

In addition to calling off Soyuz launches from French Guiana, Rogozin also announced Saturday that he no longer felt a joint Russian-U.S. collaboration on Russia’s planned Venera-D mission to Venus was necessary, given the ongoing sanctions. 

In a separate statement, Rogozin wrote that he found it “inappropriate” for any continued participation of the U.S. in the Russian Venus mission, which was slated to launch sometime in the 2020s. NASA scientists began talks with Russia to participate in the Venera-D mission in 2017. 

Source: https://www.space.com/russia-halts-soyuz-launches-french-guiana

On This Day in Space! Jan. 16, 1969: 1st docking of 2 crewed spacecraft

On January 16, 1969, two crewed spacecraft docked in orbit for the first time. 

When the Soviet Union launched the Soyuz 4 spacecraft, only one cosmonaut was on board. But it returned with a crew of three after two cosmonauts from Soyuz 5 transferred spacecrafts in orbit.

Soyuz 4 safely returned to Earth, but the one unlucky cosmonaut who was left behind in Soyuz 5 had a pretty rough landing.   

During reentry, the service module failed to separate from the descent module, and the spacecraft got turned upside-down. To top it off, the parachutes and soft-landing rockets failed to deploy properly. That cosmonaut, Boris Volynov, miraculously survived the crash — but he did lose a few teeth.

Source: https://www.space.com/39251-on-this-day-in-space.html

December 5th, 2021

On Dec. 5, 2014, NASA’s Orion space capsule launched for the first time. This spacecraft is designed to take astronauts to the moon and even Mars.

No one was on board for this test launch, but there will be astronauts blasting off into space inside these capsules by the mid-2020s. 

For the first test launch, it lifted off on a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral. 

Four and a half hours later, it splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. This mission allowed NASA to check out Orion’s key components, like the heat shield, parachutes and on-board computers.

Source: https://www.space.com/39251-on-this-day-in-space.html

20th November 2021

On Nov. 20, 1998, the first piece of the International Space Station launched into orbit. 

The 42,000-pound module is called Zarya, and it’s about the size of a tour bus. Zarya launched on board a Russian Proton rocket. Two weeks later, the STS-88 shuttle mission brought the Unity module into space.  

The STS-88 astronauts connected the two modules in orbit. Zarya was built by the Russians, but it was paid for by the United States. NASA contracted a Russian company to build it for half the price of what the American company Lockheed Martin would have charged. 

These days, Zarya is mainly used for storage and for external fuel tanks. The module also has docking ports for Russian Progress cargo ships and Soyuz spacecraft that carry crews to and from the space station. 

Today, the International Space Station is about the size of a football field and typically hosts up to six crewmembers. But back then, it was a pretty tight squeeze. 

Source: https://www.space.com/39251-on-this-day-in-space.html

15th November 2021

China is building a specially designed ship for launching rockets into space from the seas in an effort to boost its capacity to launch satellites and recover rocket stages.

The 533 feet (162.5 meters) long, 131 feet (40 meters) wide “New-type rocket launching vessel” is being constructed for use with the new China Oriental Spaceport at Haiyang, Shandong province on the Eastern coast. 

The new ship is expected to enter service in 2022. It will feature integrated launch support equipment and be capable of facilitating launches of the Long March 11, larger commercial “Smart Dragon” rockets and, in the future, liquid propellant rockets, according to the social media channel for the spaceport. 

The vessel could also in the future be used for the recovery of first stages, possibly in the same way as SpaceX’s autonomous spaceport drone ships provide a landing platform for Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rocket first stages.

China has already conducted two sea launches of Long March 11 solid rockets from the Yellow Sea using converted barges, with the most recent launch taking place in September 2020. These missions made China only the third country to perform a sea launch, following the U.S. and Russia.

China’s main space contractor stated at the start of the year that it planned two to three sea launches of the Long March 11, but none have taken place so far. It is not known if plans for the new ship are related to the apparent delays. 

The ship will help boost the rate at which China can launch from the sea and ease the pressure on China’s four main launch centers. 

So far in 2021 China has already launched 41 times so far, setting a new national record for orbital launches in a calendar year, leading the U.S. which has 39 launches to date, including Rocket Lab launches from New Zealand. 

With new commercial companies emerging and major constellation plans in the works, along with preparations for major space station missions, the sea launch option will provide more routes to orbit.

Launching from the sea holds promises other advantages for China. Flexible positioning of the launch site means it is easier to choose a flight path which doesn’t fly over other countries and makes sure spent rocket stages and other debris fall into the sea rather than on land. Debris from launches from China’s inland sites fall to ground rather than the sea, and sometimes land close to populated areas

A mobile sea platform also allows launches closer to the equator. The greater rotational speed of the Earth near the equator means lower fuel requirements to achieve orbit.

The China Oriental Seaport (sometimes instead called the “China Eastern Seaport”) project is being led by the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), the main rocket maker under China’s giant state-owned space contractor, CASC, in cooperation with the government of Haiyang city.

The Haiyang base will also have the capacity for rocket assembly and testing, and produce up to 20 solid rockets per year. Future plans will enable the site to also produce more complex liquid propellant rockets. 

China Rocket Co. Ltd., a commercial spinoff from CALT, is developing the “Smart Dragon” series of solid rockets. Smart Dragon 3 is expected to launch for the first time in 2022 and, at 102 (31 meters) long, will be much larger than the 64 feet (19.5 meters) long Smart Dragon 1 which launched for the first time in 2019. 

China Rocket has also signed a contract for launches from Haiyang and Smart Dragon 3 will be capable of launching from the sea.

Source: https://www.space.com/china-building-ship-rocket-launches-at-sea

October 31st 2021

During its closest approach, it was about 300,000 miles from Earth, or 1.3 times the average distance between Earth and the moon. So, it didn’t pose a threat to our planet. It was discovered by astronomers at Hawaii’s Pan-STARRS observatory only three weeks before the flyby, and it was given the official designation “2015 TB145.” 

But no one knew what it looked like until the day before Halloween, when the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico captured the first radar images. NASA called the asteroid the “Great Pumpkin,” while others called it the “Halloween Asteroid.”

Source: https://www.space.com/39251-on-this-day-in-space.html

October 25th 2021

Hubble telescope spots a pair of ‘squabbling’ galaxies locked in cosmic dance

The research may shed light on cosmic evolution.

The Hubble Space Telescope caught a pair of “squabbling” galaxies in action, according to the European Space Agency.

The pair of objects is known as Arp 86 and includes two galaxies roughly 220 million light-years away from Earth in the constellation Pegasus. They are known individually as NGC 7753 and the much smaller companion NGC 7752.

“The diminutive companion galaxy almost appears attached to NGC 7753, and it is this peculiarity that has earned the designation ‘Arp 86’ – signifying that the galaxy pair appears in the Atlas of Peculiar Galaxies compiled by the astronomer Halton Arp in 1966,” ESA officials wrote in a statement about the new research. 

“The gravitational dance between the two galaxies will eventually result in NGC 7752 being tossed out into intergalactic space or entirely engulfed by its much larger neighbor,” the added.

The Hubble Space Telescope observations were meant to shed light on how cold gas in the area contributes to the formation of young stars observed in the image. The observatory examined star clusters, gas clouds and dust clouds in several environments in the neighborhood, including other galaxies outside of Arp 86, ESA stated.

The space telescope’s work was combined with measurements from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), a set of telescopes in the Chilean Andes optimized to peer through galactic dust in young systems. Between ALMA and Hubble, the research team is seeking more information about how stars are formed.

The research will also assist with future work by the James Webb Space Telescope, which is set to launch late in 2021 to explore the origins of the universe. One of Webb’s research projects will be to look at dusty galaxies (such as Arp 86) to learn more about star evolution, ESA stated.

Source: https://www.space.com/hubble-telescope-squabbling-galaxies-photo

18th October 2021

China’s longest space mission ever is officially underway. 

The three astronauts of China’s Shenzhou 13 mission entered the country’s Tianhe module, the core of its Tiangong space station, on Saturday (Oct. 16) to kick off a six-month expedition to the fledgling orbital lab. The astronauts entered the station at 9:58 a.m. Saturday morning Beijing Time (8:58 p.m. Friday EDT, 0058 GMT) about eight hours after launching into orbit from the Jiuquan Satellite Launching Center in the Gobi Desert. Their arrival capped a smooth autonomous docking by the Shenzhou 13 spacecraft.

The Shenzhou 13 crew includes commander Zhai Zhigang, China’s first spacewalker; Wang Yaping, the first female astronaut to the new station who has also flown before; and first-time spaceflyer Ye Guangfu. Their Shenzhou 13 spacecraft docked at an Earth-facing port on the Tianhe module. Two other uncrewed cargo ships, Tianzhou 2 and Tianzhou 3, are also parked at the module at berths on opposite ends of the station.

Video of the Shenzhou 13 astronauts entering Tianhe show the crew floating inside a pristine white spacecraft as they began to settle into their months-long mission. During their flight, the astronauts will test the station’s systems, including a robotic arm. 

One of their tasks includes using a robotic arm to move a Tianzhou cargo ship between docking ports to rehearse in-space construction tasks ahead of the arrival of new modules in 2022, according to state media reports. Between two and three spacewalks are expected during the mission.

Source: https://www.space.com/china-shenzhou-13-astronauts-begin-space-station-work

11th October 2021

David Rothery, Professor of Planetary Geosciences, The Open University

The BepiColombo spacecraft – a joint project by the European and Japanese space agencies – swung by its destination planet Mercury in the early hours of Saturday, Oct. 2. Passing within just 124 miles (200 kilometers) of the surface of Mercury, it sent back some spectacular pictures.

For those of us who have worked for a decade or more on this mission, there could hardly be a way better to celebrate what would have been the 101st birthday of the mission’s namesake, Italian mathematician and engineer Giuseppe Colombo. His groundbreaking work in this area earned him the title of the grandfather of the planetary fly-by technique, now more often termed a “swing-by.”

BepiColombo’s cruise from Earth began in October 2018, and its journey is far from over. It will travel twice around the sun in the time it takes Mercury to orbit the star three times (around 264 days). This will allow it to rendezvous with the planet for another swing-by on June 23 2022.

After a total of six Mercury swing-bys, the cumulative effect of the planet’s gravity will reduce the spacecraft’s velocity to the point where it can fall into orbit with Mercury around the end of 2025.

BepiColombo is actually composed of two connected spacecraft and a propulsion unit. During its cruise through interplanetary space, the European orbiter (called the Mercury Planetary Orbiter or MPO) is attached on one side to the interplanetary propulsion unit (or Mercury Transfer Module). On the other, it carries a Japanese orbiter named Mio (or Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter), plus a sunshield to prevent Mio from overheating.

This stacked configuration obstructs the openings through which sophisticated visible, infrared and X-ray cameras inside MPO – capable of imaging and analysing Mercury’s surface in great detail – will operate once MPO finally becomes free-flying. In fact, most of BepiColombo’s science instruments will be wholly or partly inoperative until each orbiter is set free, around December 2025.

Adding the cameras

Until a relatively late stage in mission planning, it was accepted that BepiColombo would be “flying blind” during its whole cruise from Earth, including during swing-bys – meaning no images would be available until orbit around Mercury had been achieved.

But the level of public interest aroused in 2015 by images of comet 67P from the Rosetta mission led BepiColombo engineers Kelly Geelen and James Windsor to propose that low-cost lightweight cameras should be added to the spacecraft.

By the end of 2016, it was agreed that three small monitoring cameras – each only 2.6 inches (6.5 centimeters) in length – would be mounted onto the craft. These would snap planetary pictures during swing-bys.

It was decided to place these cameras on the Mercury Transfer Module, where they would also be able to monitor the deployment of the solar panels that provide the spacecraft with power, the magnetometer boom used for measuring magnetic fields, and the communication antennas.

What Bepi saw

During BepiColombo’s first Mercury swing-by, the fields of view of monitoring cameras two and three tracked across the planet. Camera three showed us part of the southern hemisphere, beginning with a view of sunrise over Astrolabe Rupes – a striking feature named after a French Antarctic exploration ship.

Astrolabe Rupes is a 155-mile (250 km) long “lobate scarp” – a long, curved structure marking where one part of the planet’s crust has been pushed over nearby terrain, due to the whole planet contracting as it slowly cooled.

There are some much smaller equivalent features on the moon, but Mercury is the only nearby celestial body where lobate scarps are known to occur on such a large scale.

Four minutes later, the perspective had changed enough to reveal a wider area: including the lava-flooded, 156-mile-wide (251 km) Haydn crater and Pampu Facula, one of many bright spots likely formed by explosive volcanic eruptions. Both of these features attest to Mercury’s long volcanic history, at its most active more than three billion years ago but probably persisting until around one billion years ago.

Meanwhile, camera two focused on Mercury’s northern hemisphere, including the region surrounding Cavino Crater: an important location for deciphering what lies in the layers of Mercury’s crust.

It also showed Lermontov crater: a region which appears bright because it is host to both volcanic deposits and “hollows”, where a currently unknown volatile ingredient of the crust is being lost to space via a mysterious process.

NASA’s MESSENGER mission orbited Mercury between 2011 and 2015, revealing a perplexing planet. We are still struggling to understand its composition, origin and history.

Why Mercury has features such as explosive volcanoes and strange, unique hollows on its surface is just one of the problems we hope further study will solve. Once in orbit, BepiColombo’s advanced payload of scientific instruments will help us understand more about how Mercury formed and what it’s made of.

In the meantime, these extraordinary swing-by pictures at least remind us that we have a healthy spacecraft heading to an exciting destination.

Source: https://www.space.com/first-close-up-mercury-pictures-bepicolombo-planet-secrets