Philae’s Batteries Have Drained, Comet Lander Sleeps


Philae, first comet lander, Nov. 12, 2014 – Nov. 15, 2014 (CET).

In the final hours, Philae’s science team hurried to squeeze as much science out of the small lander as possible. But the deep sleep was inevitable, Rosetta’s lander has slipped into hibernation after running its batteries dry.

In its final hour, the official Philae Twitter feed conversed with the official Rosetta account, saying, “I’m feeling a bit tired, did you get all my data? I might take a nap.”

“My #lifeonacomet has just begun @ESA_Rosetta. I’ll tell you more about my new home, comet #67P soon… zzzzz,” it tweeted before falling silent just as the European Space Agency confirmed that Philae had run so low on battery power that it had to drop into hibernation, ceasing all science operations.

NEWS: Rosetta Spies Philae’s First Precision Comet Landing

“Prior to falling silent, the lander was able to transmit all science data gathered during the First Science Sequence,” said Stephan Ulamec, Philae Lander Manager. “This machine performed magnificently under tough conditions, and we can be fully proud of the incredible scientific success Philae has delivered.”

Contact with the lander was lost at 01:36 CET (7:36 p.m. EST), which is around the time the Rosetta spacecraft orbited beyond the comet’s horizon, severing the communications link with its lander.

According to the ESA Rosetta mission blog, reestablishing communications will not be possible unless enough sunlight falls on the lander’s solar array to charge up its batteries.

PHOTOS: When Philae Grabbed a Comet

Earlier Friday evening, mission scientists sent commands to the lander to turn its body so that the small amount of sunlight Philae does receive (only 1.5 hours of light per 20 hour comet rotation) will hit more of the solar panels, boosting the possibility of a recharge. But there is only a very slim chance that this operation will bring Philae out of hibernation.

Although this likely spells the end of Rosetta’s surface mission with Philae, as the comet continues its journey around the sun with spacecraft in tow, the solar angle may change, casting more light on the rover in coming weeks — but this is a long-shot.

Regardless, Rosetta will listen out for Philae when the next communication window opens, on Saturday (Nov. 15) at 11:00 CET (5:00 a.m. EST).

NEWS: Philae to Attempt Risky Comet ‘Hop’ for Survival

This may be the end of Philae’s short and trailblazing mission on the surface of Comet 67P, but a huge amount of data — including data from a drilling operation that, apparently, was carried out despite concerns that Philae wasn’t positioned correctly — was streamed to Rosetta mission control, potentially revolutionizing our understanding about the nature of comets.

And Rosetta will continue orbiting its comet as 67P drops closer to the sun, providing us with a unique and historic perspective on an icy body that could hold the secrets to the formation of our solar system.


Race to Build NASA Space Taxi Down to the Wire

A three-way race to build a commercially operated spaceship to shuttle astronauts — and other paying customers — to and from low-Earth orbit is close the finish line, with NASA aiming to award development and flight service contracts as early as next week.

So far, two companies favoring capsule designs — Boeing and Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX — have won the lion’s share of NASA’s Commercial Crew program funds. The effort, which began in 2010, is intended to provide a U.S. alternative for flying crews to the International Space Station, which orbits about 260 miles above Earth.

Since NASA retired the space shuttles in 2011, the only human transportation system flying to the station is owned by Russia, which charges about $70 million per person for rides on its Soyuz capsules. NASA hopes to change that before the end of 2017.

NEWS: Space Taxi, Please! NASA Investing $1.1 Bln

Along with Boeing and SpaceX, NASA has been funding space taxi design work at a third company, Colorado-based Sierra Nevada Corp., though its contracts have been about half of what Boeing and SpaceX received.

Sierra Nevada eschewed the capsule design in favor of a small winged spaceplane called Dream Chaser, which resembles a miniature space shuttle. The company has signed partnership agreements with more than 30 companies, nine universities, nine NASA field centers and three international space agencies, a strategy that could provide some flexibility if it is not selected for additional NASA funding.

“We’ve always looked at this as a system, with the space station being a mission. There are other missions that we are looking at. Having this wide group of companies allows us to look at construction, repair missions, the ability to do short- and long-duration science missions independent of the space station,” Mark Sirangelo, Sierra Nevada Space Systems president, told Discovery News.

“For us, receiving hundreds of millions of dollars less at the start of the competition put us at a schedule disadvantage — we couldn’t do as many things — but it made us be a lot more creative in how we were going to manage the last two years,” Sirangelo said.

PHOTOS: Dragon’s Bounty: SpaceX Mission Complete

“Showing that you can manage to a very tight budget is a pretty big thing,” he added.

Like Boeing’s CST-100 capsule, the Dream Chaser initially would fly on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket, which uses a controversial Russian-built motor to power its first stage. Russia has threatened to cut off exports of the motors for military missions in response to U.S. embargoes punishing Russia for incursions into Ukraine. So far, however, the rocket business has continued unimpeded.

SpaceX, which already flies cargo to the space station aboard its Dragon capsules, is adding seats, life support and other upgrades for a passenger version. Both types of Dragon spacecraft launch on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets.

So far, NASA has spent about $1.5 billion on the Commercial Crew program. The agency says competition is critical to drive down costs and reduce technical risks. It intends to continue backing development of two space taxi designs, though has not said how it will pay for that.

As part of the program, companies contribute development funds and will own their vehicles and intellectual property. NASA wants to buy flight services, similar to how it pays SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp to make supply runs to the station.

NEWS: Commercial Moon Flights Coming Soon?

Even without NASA funding, SpaceX says it will continue developing its human version of Dragon, albeit at a slower pace.

Sierra Nevada will wait to see what happens with the contract awards before deciding how to proceed, said Sirangelo.

“If we weren’t a winner, we need to understand why and that’s going to factor into our thinking … but we’re still planning to move forward,” Sirangelo said.

Boeing’s take is that without NASA investment and flight service contracts, building a business case for the CST-100 “would be very difficult to do,” John Mulholland, Boeing vice president, said earlier this month at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Space 2014 conference in San Diego.

Contract awards are expected by early September.

SpaceX Delays Falcon Launch After Test Vehicle Explosion

Launch of SpaceX’s next Falcon 9 rocket is on hold, pending a review after a related test vehicle self-destructed during a flight test last week.

The company had planned to launch its 12th Falcon 9 rocket early Wednesday to put a communications satellite into orbit for Asia Satellite Telecommunications Holdings. It would have been the second launch this month for Hong Kong-based AsiaSat, which is paying SpaceX about $110 million for the two flights.

NEWS: SpaceX Releases New Video of Rocket ‘Soft Splashdown’

SpaceX decided late Tuesday afternoon to postpone the launch so engineers could “triple-check” if there are any failure scenarios that have been overlooked.

Initial analysis shows no direct link between the problem that caused SpaceX’s Falcon 9R development vehicle to self-destruct on Friday about 17 seconds after launch from the company’s McGregor, Texas, facility.

The Falcon 9R problem stemmed from a blocked sensor port, company founder and chief executive Elon Musk said in a statement released late Tuesday.

NEWS: SpaceX Reusable Rocket Prototype Explodes Over Texas

“Had the same … problem occurred with an operational Falcon 9, it would have been outvoted by several other sensors. That voting system was not present on the test vehicle,” Musk wrote.

“What we do want to triple-check is whether even highly improbable corner case scenarios have the optimal fault detection and recovery logic. This has already been reviewed by SpaceX and multiple outside agencies, so the most likely outcome is no change,” he added.

The extra analysis will delay the AsiaSat launch one to two weeks.

Spectacular Auroras Captivate Astronaut in Space


Spectacular Auroras Captivate Astronaut in Space


Curiosity Does Drilling U-Turn on Wobbly Mars Rock

Despite its name, one Mars rock isn’t about to enrich NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity with a cascade of science.

After a drilling test last week on a Mars rock dubbed “Bonanza King,” Mars Science Laboratory mission managers noticed that the rock was unstable. So to avoid any unnecessary risk to the rover’s robotic arm-mounted drilling tools, further drilling work in the area was canceled.

ANALYSIS: Curiosity Scrubs Mars Rock, Possible Drilling Target

Previous to the wobbly discovery, Bonanza King was cleaned by Curiosity’s surface abrasion tool, which cleared off a layer of oxidized dust. In the rock is an interesting vein of white material — possibly sulfate salts — but, alas, Curiosity won’t be sampling any of the rock’s hidden secrets.

“We have decided that the rocks under consideration for drilling, based on the tests we did, are not good candidates for drilling,” said Curiosity Project Manager Jim Erickson of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “Instead of drilling here, we will resume driving toward Mount Sharp.”

PHOTOS: Curiosity Snaps Selfies, Begins Mars Rock Drill

The drilling test was carried out by Curiosity’s percussion tool, which acts like a small chisel by making an indentation in the rock’s surface. But during the impacts, the rock moved slightly. With the previous three successful drilling targets, the rocks were part of more extensive outcrops that provided stability. Bonanza King and the other potential targets in Curiosity’s current location are simply too wobbly for a safe drill.

This is only the latest challenge Curiosity has faced during its epic journey to the 3.4 mile (5.5 kilometer) high Aeolis Mons (known as “Mount Sharp”). Earlier this month, the six-wheeled rover began driving through “Hidden Valley” on its way to Bonanza King, but it experienced some wobbliness itself as it tried to trundle over loose sand.

PHOTOS: Mars Wear and Tear: Curiosity’s Wheel Damage

“After further analysis of the sand, Hidden Valley does not appear to be navigable with the desired degree of confidence,” Erickson said. “We will use a route avoiding the worst of the sharp rocks as we drive slightly to the north of Hidden Valley.”

Since landing on Mars in 2012, Curiosity has notched up an impressive 5.5 miles (8.8 kilometers) of hard Mars driving that has taken its toll on the rover’s wheels. However, there’s only another 2 to 3 miles until Curiosity reaches Mount Sharp’s lower slopes, a goal that is just within reach.

Concept for XS-1 Military Space Plane Unveiled

The world is starting to get a better idea of what the U.S. military’s proposed new space plane might look like.

This week, aerospace firm Northrop Grumman released artwork depicting its conception of the XS-1 space plane, which it’s designing under a $3.9 million contract from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Northrop Grumman is one of three companies competing for the right to build the unmanned XS-1, which is short for “Experimental Spaceplane.” The other two are Boeing and Masten Space Systems, both of which also won yearlong “Phase 1” initial design contracts in July.

PHOTOS: Introducing the Warpship

DARPA wants the XS-1 to make spaceflight much more routine and affordable. The reusable vehicle should be able to fly 10 times in a 10-day span and launch 3,000- to 5,000-lb. (1,361 to 2,268 kilograms) payloads to orbit for less than $5 million per flight, officials have said.

XS-1 will probably feature a reusable first stage and one or more expendable upper stages. The first stage will fly to suborbital space at hypersonic speeds, then return to Earth to be used again; the upper stages will deploy payloads to orbit.

Northrop Grumman is teaming with other aerospace companies on its design, tapping Scaled Composites to head manufacture-and-assembly work and Virgin Galactic to lead XS-1 operation.

“Our team is uniquely qualified to meet DARPA’s XS-1 operational system goals, having built and transitioned many developmental systems to operational use, including our current work on the world’s only commercial spaceline, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo,” Doug Young, vice president for missile defense and advanced missions at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, said in a statement.

Secret Military Mini-Shuttle Lands in California

“We plan to bundle proven technologies into our concept that we developed during related projects for DARPA, NASA and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, giving the government maximum return on those investments,” he added.

Northrop Grumman is not alone in reaching out to other firms for assistance in developing an XS-1 design. Masten is working with XCOR Aerospace, and Boeing is teaming with Jeff Bezos’ secretive firm Blue Origin.

DARPA expects to hold a Phase 2 competition next year to see which company makes it to the flight-test stage of XS-1 development. (The agency only has enough money for one XS-1 contractor in the end.) Officials currently envision that the first orbital mission of XS-1 will take place in 2018.

Originally published on

  • New Experimental Spaceplane Design Unveiled By DARPA | Animation
  • XS-1: A US Military Space Plane in Pictures (Gallery)
  • Space Planes: Evolution of the Winged Spaceship (Infographic)

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NASA Unveils Best Map Ever of Neptune’s Moon Triton

A scientist has created the best-ever global color map of Neptune’s big moon Triton, using images taken by a NASA spacecraft 25 years ago.

Paul Schenk of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston produced the map after restoring photos snapped by the Voyager 2 probe during its flyby of Neptune and Triton on Aug. 25, 1989. The new map has also been turned into a minute-long movie of Voyager 2’s historic Triton encounter — the first and only time a spacecraft has ever visited the Neptune system.

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The new map, which has a resolution of 1,970 feet (600 meters) per pixel, may help bring enigmatic Triton back into the spotlight. [Photos of Neptune, The Mysterious Blue Planet]

BLOG: Lost Neptune Moon Re-Discovered

“In the intervening quarter century and its many discoveries, I think we have tended to forget how strange and exotic Triton really is!” Schenk wrote in a blog post Thursday (Aug. 21).

“Its effective surface age may be a little as 10 million years (old), clearly implying that active geology is going on today,” he added. “The cantaloupe terrain, which I interpreted back in 1993 as due to crustal overturn (diapirism), hasn’t been seen anywhere else. The volcanic region, with its smooth plains and volcanic pits large and small, is the size of Texas. And the southern terrains still defy interpretation.”

Schenk produced the map using green, blue and orange filters. Colors have been enhanced to accentuate contrast but still show Triton roughly as human eyes would see it, NASA officials said.

In an interesting twist, NASA’s New Horizons probe is scheduled to cross the orbit of Neptune on Monday (Aug. 25), 25 years to the day after Voyager 2’s encounter. New Horizons is streaking toward a flyby of Pluto on July 14, 2015 that should return the first good looks at the distant dwarf planet and its moons.

PHOTOS: Voyager 2′s Epic Outer Solar System Odyssey

The connections between Voyager 2 and New Horizons don’t stop there; Triton and Pluto are very similar to each other in some ways. Both are just slightly smaller than Earth’s moon, possess thin, nitrogen-dominated atmospheres and have various ices (of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrogen) on their surfaces, Schenk noted.

“What will we see at Pluto? Guesses have ranged from active geology to cold and cratered, so we are in for a suspenseful summer next year!” he wrote on his blog.

“Triton is of importance as it offers clues to what geologic features might look like on Pluto, given that the icy crusts of both bodies are probably rather similar and would presumably react in similar ways under internal stress and heat,” he added. “So if there were or are volcanoes on Pluto, they could look similar to those we see on Triton.”

Voyager 2 launched in August 1977, a few weeks before its twin, Voyager 1. The pair conducted an unprecendented “grand tour” of the outer solar system, returning good looks at the Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune systems.

Both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 then kept right on flying. Voyager 1 entered interstellar space in August 2012, and Voyager 2 (which took a different route through the solar system) is poised to do so soon.

More From LiveScience:

  • Voyager 2’s ‘Hair-Raising’ Fly-By Of Triton Animated
  • Neptune Quiz: How Well Do You Know the Other Blue Planet?
  • Photos from NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 Probes
  • Moons of Neptune: Giant Blue Planet’s 14 Satellites Unmasked (Infographic)

Originally published on

By Amazon Delas Posted in Space

Here’s What NASA’s Next Mars Rover Will Do

Like Curiosity’s landing method in 2012, the Mars 2020 rover will use a similar “skycrane” to be lowered onto the Red Planet’s surface.

NASA’s next Mars rover may look a lot like Curiosity; a six-wheeled Mini Cooper-sized robot designed to assess if the planet most like Earth in the solar system ever had habitats suitable for life. (It does!)

But the still unnamed follow-on vehicle, targeted for launch in 2020, will have a very different suite of instruments aboard.

NEWS: NASA to Make Water on the Moon and Oxygen on Mars

From 58 proposals, NASA on Thursday selected seven science instruments that will be used to delve deeper into questions about the existence of life beyond Earth.

Definitive answers may come only after carefully selected samples are back in Earth laboratories, so one of the key goals of the Mars 2020 rover mission is to identify, collect and cache samples for eventual analysis on Earth.

To that effort, the new rover will have dual multispectral zoom cameras, called Mastcam-Z, designed to provide broadband red/green/blue color imaging as well as narrow-band visible to short-wave near-infrared sensitivity.

NEWS: NASA Plans ‘Curiosity Twin’ Rover Mission in 2020

The cameras’ zoom feature will be capable of resolving features as small as about 1 millimeter in size in the near field and about 3- to 4 centimeters from 100 meters away. Scientists will use the cameras to navigate the rover, collect samples and study rocks and soil.

In addition to still images, the cameras can shoot video, which will enable them to capture dynamic phenomena such as swirling dust devils, drifting Martian clouds, passing comets and other astronomical events.

Complementing Mastcam-Z is SuperCam, which will be able to take pictures and determine the chemical composition and mineralogy of target rocks and regolith — including the presence of organic compounds from a distance. For closer inspections, scientists can tap two instruments flying to Mars for the first time. They are:

  • The Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL), an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer and high-resolution imager that can reveal fine-scale elemental composition of Martian surface materials, and
  • The Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals (SHERLOC), another spectrometer which uses a ultraviolet laser for fine-scale mineralogy and to detect organic compounds.

NEWS: Innovation is Key to 2020 Mars Rover Mission

Another instrument is less concerned about past life on Mars than life to come, namely humans. Toward that goal, NASA’s human space exploration program is backing a technology demonstration to produce oxygen from carbon dioxide in Mars’ atmosphere. The experiment is called MOXIE, an acronym for  Mars OXygen In situ resource utilization Experiment.

Rounding out the Mars 2020 payload are two instruments to assess the Martian environment and to study what is beneath its surface.

The Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA) is a set of sensors to measure temperature, wind speed and direction, pressure and relative humidity, as well as the size and shape of dust. The Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Exploration (RIMFAX) is a ground-penetrating radar that can provide centimeter-scale resolution of the planet’s interior.

In all, NASA plans to spend about $130 million to develop the seven instruments.

By Amazon Delas Posted in Space

Most Precise Measurement of an Alien World Achieved




The problem with measuring the physical size of extrasolar planets is that they orbit stars many light-years distant. But now, through a joint effort between NASA’s Kepler and Spitzer space telescopes, the vital statistics of one alien planet has been gauged through the most precise interstellar measurement made to date.

NEWS: Scientists Home In On Earth-Sized Exoplanet

The “Super-Earth,” called Kepler-93b, orbits a star 300 light-years from Earth and was already known — from observations of the star’s ‘wobble’ by the Keck observatory in Hawaii — to have a mass 3.8 times that of Earth. Although it may be called a “super-Earth”, there is very little similarity between Kepler-93b and our planet, however; it orbits its star at one-sixth the orbital distance at which Mercury orbits the sun — it is therefore a roasted world. But with the help of this most recent measurement, astronomers have deduced that it is likely of a similar composition as our planet, albeit a little more molten.

“With Kepler and Spitzer, we’ve captured the most precise measurement to date of an alien planet’s size, which is critical for understanding these far-off worlds,” said Sarah Ballard, a NASA Carl Sagan Fellow at the University of Washington in Seattle. A paper detailing Ballard’s team’s findings has been published in the Astrophysical Journal.

Exquisite Exoplanetary Art: Photos

Over seven orbits that Kepler-93b completed between 2010 and 2011, the researchers were able to use transit data from Kepler and corroborate those measurements with Spitzer’s infrared data. By combining both instruments’ data, a very precise measurement of the star’s girth could be made. From this, a precise measurement of the planet’s diameter could be made.

And the precision acquired is jaw-dropping. Kepler-93b is 11,700 miles (18,800 kilometers) wide with an error margin of only plus or minus 150 miles (240 kilometers). In other words, we now know Kepler-93b’s diameter to a precision of more than 98.7 percent.

“The measurement is so precise that it’s literally like being able to measure the height of a six-foot tall person to within three quarters of an inch — if that person were standing on Jupiter,” said Ballard in a NASA/JPL news release.

Top Exoplanets for Alien Life: Photos

With information about the exoplanet’s mass and diameter in hand, it was a relatively simple matter to gain a hint as to its composition. Kepler-93b is likely a rocky world with an iron core, much like Earth’s interior.

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