Posts Tagged Mars Science Laboratory

Curiosity Rover Provides Clues to Changes in Martian Atmosphere – SpaceRef


Curiosity Rover Provides Clues to Changes in Martian Atmosphere

© NASA

Lifting SAM Instrument for Installation into Mars Rover

NASA’s car-sized rover, Curiosity, has taken significant steps toward understanding how Mars may have lost much of its original atmosphere.

Learning what happened to the Martian atmosphere will help scientists assess whether the planet ever was habitable. The present atmosphere of Mars is 100 times thinner than Earth’s.

A set of instruments aboard the rover has ingested and analyzed samples of the atmosphere collected near the “Rocknest” site in Gale Crater where the rover is stopped for research. Findings from the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instruments suggest that loss of a fraction of the atmosphere, resulting from a physical process favoring retention of heavier isotopes of certain elements, has been a significant factor in the evolution of the planet. Isotopes are variants of the same element with different atomic weights.

Initial SAM results show an increase of 5 percent in heavier isotopes of carbon in the atmospheric carbon dioxide compared to estimates of the isotopic ratios present when Mars formed. These enriched ratios of heavier isotopes to lighter ones suggest the top of the atmosphere may have been lost to interplanetary space. Losses at the top of the atmosphere would deplete lighter isotopes. Isotopes of argon also show enrichment of the heavy isotope, matching previous estimates of atmosphere composition derived from studies of Martian meteorites on Earth.


The Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument, largest of the 10 science instruments for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission, examines samples of Martian rocks, soil and atmosphere for information about chemicals that are important to life and other chemical indicators about past and present environments.

Scientists theorize that in Mars’ distant past its environment may have been quite different, with persistent water and a thicker atmosphere. NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, or MAVEN, mission will investigate possible losses from the upper atmosphere when it arrives at Mars in 2014.

With these initial sniffs of Martian atmosphere, SAM also made the most sensitive measurements ever to search for methane gas on Mars. Preliminary results reveal little to no methane. Methane is of interest as a simple precursor chemical for life. On Earth, it can be produced by either biological or non-biological processes.

Methane has been difficult to detect from Earth or the current generation of Mars orbiters because the gas exists on Mars only in traces, if at all. The Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS) in SAM provides the first search conducted within the Martian atmosphere for this molecule. The initial SAM measurements place an upper limit of just a few parts methane per billion parts of Martian atmosphere, by volume, with enough uncertainty that the amount could be zero.

“Methane is clearly not an abundant gas at the Gale Crater site, if it is there at all. At this point in the mission we’re just excited to be searching for it,” said SAM TLS lead Chris Webster of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. “While we determine upper limits on low values, atmospheric variability in the Martian atmosphere could yet hold surprises for us.”

In Curiosity’s first three months on Mars, SAM has analyzed atmosphere samples with two laboratory methods. One is a mass spectrometer investigating the full range of atmospheric gases. The other, TLS, has focused on carbon dioxide and methane. During its two-year prime mission, the rover also will use an instrument called a gas chromatograph that separates and identifies gases. The instrument also will analyze samples of soil and rock, as well as more atmosphere samples.

“With these first atmospheric measurements we already can see the power of having a complex chemical laboratory like SAM on the surface of Mars,” said SAM Principal Investigator Paul Mahaffy of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “Both atmospheric and solid sample analyses are crucial for understanding Mars’ habitability.”

SAM is set to analyze its first solid sample in the coming weeks, beginning the search for organic compounds in the rocks and soils of Gale Crater. Analyzing water-bearing minerals and searching for and analyzing carbonates are high priorities for upcoming SAM solid sample analyses.

Researchers are using Curiosity’s 10 instruments to investigate whether areas in Gale Crater ever offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life. JPL manages the project for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The SAM Instrument was developed at Goddard with instrument contributions from Goddard, JPL and the University of Paris in France.

 Curiosity Rover Provides Clues to Changes in Martian Atmosphere – SpaceRef.

 

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The Curiosity Rover’s Ultimate Self-Portrait


The Curiosity Rover’s Ultimate Self-Portrait

by NANCY ATKINSON on NOVEMBER 2, 2012

Want to stay on top of all the space news? Follow @universetoday on Twitter

The Curiosity rover self portrait. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems

OK, we thought the low-resolution self-portrait from yesterday was great… but here’s the real goods: a monster, high-resolution awesome mosaic of 55 images taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), showing the rover at its spot in Gale Crater — called Rocknest — with the base of Gale Crater’s 5-kilometer- (3-mile-) high mountain, Aeolis Mons or Mount Sharp, rising in the background. The images were taken on Sol 84 (Oct. 31, 2012), and sent to Earth today. In the foreground, four scoop scars can be seen in the regolith in front of the rover. As we mentioned about the previous MAHLI mosaic, the arm was moved for each of the 55 images, so the arm and the camera doesn’t show up, just like any photographer behind the camera (or their arms) isn’t visible in a photograph.

You can get access to the full resolution version at this link. It’s amazing.

But that’s not all…

NASA says that self-portraits like this one document the state of the rover and allow mission engineers to track changes over time, such as dust accumulation and wheel wear. Due to its location on the end of the robotic arm, only MAHLI (among the rover’s 17 cameras) is able to image some parts of the craft, including the port-side wheels.

Emily Lakdawalla at the Planetary Blog talks about the projection issue, where the wheel closest to the front looks big and distorted. That’s a factor of the camera angle and Emily mentions a discussion of this is taking place by the image wizards over atUnmanned Spaceflight , if you want to see the various ways to deal with this issue.

Emily also points out how the rover photographed itself photographing itself — due to the reflective surfaces on the turret, so check out her analysis.

You can always see the raw images coming in from Curiosity at this NASA website.

But the other cool thing is that another whole set of images was taken from a slightly different angle, which means only one thing: 3-D! Here’s Stu Atkinson’s first quick attempt:

There will surely be some refinements of the 3-D version, but enjoy this one for now!

 The Curiosity Rover’s Ultimate Self-Portrait.

 

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JPL’s Torture Chamber for Spacecraft


 

JPL’s Torture Chamber for Spacecraft

by NANCY ATKINSON on SEPTEMBER 7, 2012

The Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity being tested under Martian conditions in JPL’s space simulator on March 8, 2011. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This is a place where engineers inflict all sorts of cruelty. It’s also a National Historic Landmark that is now 50 years old. What is it? The Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Space Simulator. While the name sounds like it could be a video game or virtual reality trainer, it actually is the place where spacecraft go to see if they’ve the right stuff to survive the harsh environment in space.

Known as the “25-Foot Space Simulator,” it capable of producing true interplanetary conditions such as extreme cold, high vacuum, and intense solar radiation that is big enough for most spacecraft to fit inside.

 

Exterior View of Twenty-Five-Foot Space Simulator, in 1983. Credit: NASA/JPL.

Just like the feared simulations that astronauts go through during training for a spaceflight, where Sim-Sups (Simulation Supervisors) conjure up all sorts of scenarios where everything that can go wrong does, the Space Simulator allows engineers to test the complete spacecraft in its flight configuration for most any type of conditions, searching for any problems imaginable.

Over the years spacecraft tested in this facility include the Ranger, Surveyor, Mariner, and Voyager spacecraft and recently, the Curiosity rover took its turn inside this torture chamber.

Doug Smith from Caltech’s Engineering & Science magazine calls it the Ultimate Evil Tanning Bed — expressly designed to deliver a fatal sunburn to anything placed inside.

The Space Simulator chamber is a stainless-steel cylindrical vessel 8.23 meters (27 feet) in diameter and 26 meters (85 feet) high. The walls and floor are lined with thermally opaque aluminum cryogenic shrouds that can deliver a temperature range of -195° to 93° C ( -320° to +200°F) by liquid or gaseous nitrogen. The solar simulation system consists of an array of 37 xenon 20- to 30-kilowatt compact arc lamps that can produce a variety of beam sizes and intensities. If your spacecraft is going to be seared by the Sun at Mercury or be subject to the freezing temperatures in the Kuiper Belt, this facility can test if every bolt, wire, switch, solder point and component can survive.

Once a spacecraft is put inside the chamber, it takes about 75 minutes to get the conditions to the desired levels, and depending on how quickly the engineers want to see how their spacecraft fared, test conditions can be terminated and access provided to the test item in about 2-1/2 hours.

There’s even a setting for geosynchronous orbit simulation that can test declination angle change and much more, all in a vacuum environment.

The facility’s construction started in 1961 and was completed in 1962 at a cost of $4 million.

The first spacecraft to submit to the torture chamber’s extremes was the Mariner 1 spacecraft that was headed to Venus. It passed the torture chamber’s test, but unfortunately the spacecraft had to be destroyed by a Range Safety officer within minutes after it veered off-course during launch on July 22, 1962 due to a defective signal from the Atlas launch vehicle and a bug in the program equations of the ground-based guiding computer. (The Space Simulator just can’t test for problems like that, regrettably.)

But, JPL had already built an identical spacecraft and Mariner 2 launched a month later on August 27, 1962, sending it on a 3½-month flight to Venus.

In the 50 years the Space Simulator has been in operation, every spacecraft built at JPL has been subject to the torture chamber before heading out to the real torture of the harsh space environment.

“It’s a rare thing when a spacecraft goes into the simulator and the engineers don’t learn something important and modify the design to work better,” saids Andrew Rose, the technical manager for JPL’s Environmental Test Laboratory group.

The Curiosity rover inside the Space Simulator. Credit: NASA/JPL

Over the years, the simulator has been upgraded to provide all sorts of environments, and earlier this year, the Curiosity rover took its turn inside, being sealed in a near-vacuum environment, with temperature cooled to – 130° C (-202 ° F) with the giant light panels simulating the sparse Mars’ sunshine and the various radiation intensities found on Mars.

Even more evils await future spacecraft that will be tested in JPL’s Space Simulator.

 JPL’s Torture Chamber for Spacecraft.

 

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NASA – NASA Mars Rover Begins Driving at Bradbury Landing


 

NASA Mars Rover Begins Driving at Bradbury Landing

08.22.12

 

Curiosity's First Track Marks on MarsThis 360-degree panorama shows evidence of a successful first test drive for NASA’s Curiosity rover. On Aug. 22, 2012, the rover made its first move, going forward about 15 feet (4.5 meters), rotating 120 degrees and then reversing about 8 feet (2.5 meters). Curiosity is about 20 feet (6 meters) from its landing site, now named Bradbury Landing. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech 
› Full image and caption       › Latest images       › Curiosity gallery       › Curiosity videos



PASADENA, Calif. — NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity has begun driving from its landing site, which scientists announced today they have named for the late author Ray Bradbury.

Making its first movement on the Martian surface, Curiosity’s drive combined forward, turn and reverse segments. This placed the rover roughly 20 feet (6 meters) from the spot where it landed 16 days ago.

NASA has approved the Curiosity science team’s choice to name the landing ground for the influential author, who was born 92 years ago today and died this year. The location where Curiosity touched down is now called Bradbury Landing.

“This was not a difficult choice for the science team,” said Michael Meyer, NASA program scientist for Curiosity. “Many of us and millions of other readers were inspired in our lives by stories Ray Bradbury wrote to dream of the possibility of life on Mars.”

Today’s drive confirmed the health of Curiosity’s mobility system and produced the rover’s first wheel tracks on Mars, documented in images taken after the drive. During a news conference today at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., the mission’s lead rover driver, Matt Heverly, showed an animation derived from visualization software used for planning the first drive.

“We have a fully functioning mobility system with lots of amazing exploration ahead,” Heverly said.

Curiosity will spend several more days of working beside Bradbury Landing, performing instrument checks and studying the surroundings, before embarking toward its first driving destination approximately 1,300 feet (400 meters) to the east-southeast.

“Curiosity is a much more complex vehicle than earlier Mars rovers. The testing and characterization activities during the initial weeks of the mission lay important groundwork for operating our precious national resource with appropriate care,” said Curiosity Project Manager Pete Theisinger of JPL. “Sixteen days in, we are making excellent progress.”

The science team has begun pointing instruments on the rover’s mast for investigating specific targets of interest near and far. The Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument used a laser and spectrometers this week to examine the composition of rocks exposed when the spacecraft’s landing engines blew away several inches of overlying material.

The instrument’s principal investigator, Roger Weins of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, reported that measurements made on the rocks in this scoured-out feature called Goulburn suggest a basaltic composition. “These may be pieces of basalt within a sedimentary deposit,” Weins said.

Curiosity began a two-year prime mission on Mars when the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft delivered the car-size rover to its landing target inside Gale Crater on Aug. 5 PDT (Aug. 6 EDT). The mission will use 10 science instruments on the rover to assess whether the area has ever offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life.

In a career spanning more than 70 years, Ray Bradbury inspired generations of readers to dream, think and create. A prolific author of hundreds of short stories and nearly 50 books, as well as numerous poems, essays, operas, plays, teleplays and screenplays, Bradbury was one of the most celebrated writers of our time.

His groundbreaking works include “Fahrenheit 451,” “The Martian Chronicles,” “The Illustrated Man,” “Dandelion Wine,” and “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” He wrote the screenplay for John Huston’s classic film adaptation of “Moby Dick,” and was nominated for an Academy Award. He adapted 65 of his stories for television’s The Ray Bradbury Theater, and won an Emmy for his teleplay of “The Halloween Tree.”

JPL manages the Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The rover was designed, developed and assembled at JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

 NASA – NASA Mars Rover Begins Driving at Bradbury Landing.

 

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Mars rover Curiosity: its plutonium power comes courtesy of Soviet nukes. – Slate Magazine


 

Curiosity’s Dirty Little Secret

 

Need to send a rover to Mars? Stop by a Soviet nuclear weapons plant to borrow a cup of plutonium.

 

By Geoffrey Brumfiel |Posted Monday, Aug. 20, 2012, at 7:15 AM ET

 

This 360-degree, full-resolution panorama from NASA's Curiosity rover shows the area all around the rover within Gale Crater on Mars.

A panorama taken by the Curiosity rover on Mars. The rover’s fuel supply is a relic of the Cold War

Photo courtesy NASA/JPL/Caltech.

 

I’m as happy as anyone that the Curiosity rover got to Mars; it’s hard not to root for all those NASA geeks in their blue polo shirts. But before you get all American and apple pie about the achievement, there’s something you should know: Curiosity runs on plutonium from a Soviet-era nuclear weapons plant.

Take a look at the back of Curiosity. Other rovers have solar panels, but Curiosity doesn’t. Instead, there’s a little white thing that looks cute, almost like a tail. Inside are eight boxes filled with pellets of nuclear fuel. This stuff is hot, so hot that the boxes glow bright red, and will glow for years to come. Think of it as nuclear charcoal. The fuel will keep the rover toasty on cold Martian nights and supply it with electricity.

It’s a neat trick, and one that NASA has used before. Since the 1960s, the United States has been launching nuclear-powered spacecraft. The first were military satellites. That worked swell, except that when the mission ended, you had a radioactive pile of junk orbiting the planet. And every now and then, one would fail to launch or fall back to Earth. That was bad for PR.

These days, NASA puts nuclear fuel on things that aren’t coming back. The Voyager missions that left the solar system carried it, as did the first Martian missions, the Viking landers. It’s particularly useful when you’re going far from the sun—places where solar panels don’t work.

The particular kind of fuel inside Curiosity is called plutonium-238. It’s the perfect stuff for the job: It’s extremely radioactive, so it gives off plenty of heat, but the type of radioactive particles released by plutonium-238 can’t even penetrate a sheet of paper. As long as you don’t touch it or swallow it, plutonium-238 is safe, and with a half-life of 87.7 years, it decays slowly enough that a fairly small supply can power a spacecraft for a decade or more.

But plutonium-238 isn’t easy to come by. It doesn’t exist in nature, and only two places in the world have made serious quantities of it. Both made something else: nuclear warheads. You see, plutonium-238 is really a byproduct of the process for making another kind of plutonium, known as isotope 239. Plutonium-239 is the real terror: It takes just a couple of pounds of the stuff to make a bomb as powerful as many kilotons of TNT. Almost all modern warheads in the U.S. arsenal use plutoniuim-239 as a trigger. When it explodes, it sets off an even larger thermonuclear device capable of flattening a midsized city (say, Boulder, Colo., or Ann Arbor, Mich.). Russian warheads have even higher yields.

In the 1960s, the United States and Soviet Union were hungry for 239. They built secret reactors that irradiated uranium to create it. Then they dissolved the uranium-plutonium mix in acid and used a slew of toxic chemicals and solvents to isolate the plutonium. The work provided the plutonium-239 for thousands of tiny, high-efficiency warheads—many of which still sit atop missiles today.

Plutonium-238, the stuff in the rover, was an afterthought. NASA asked the Atomic Energy Commission to get some for the agency’s satellites in the 1950s, after falling behind in the space race. The eggheads at the nuke plant came up with a clever way of producing it from unwanted isotopes they were just going to throw away anyway. The Soviets had the same idea. Using a similar system of acids and solvents to dissolve their uranium fuel, the Soviets skimmed plutoniuim-238 off of their production operation at a secret bomb factory in the Ural Mountains. It went on for decades: In came uranium fuel, out went plutonium-239 for the bombs, plutonium-238 for the spacecraft, and many other isotopes for other needs.

The factories churned out something else, too: radioactive waste. At the U.S. plant on the South Carolina-Georgia border, workers dumped tens of millions of gallons of radioactive waste a year into open-air basins. The worst of the stuff, 37 million gallons of radioactive sludge, salt, and liquid waste, was put into underground storage tanks, where it sits to this day. The site, known as Savannah River, is still heavily contaminated, and clean-up operations have run to many billions of dollars.

In Russia, the situation is even grimmer. In true Soviet fashion, the bomb makers secretly dumped unknown quantities of liquid waste into giant reservoirs around the plant. Nobody knows how much radioactive contamination is out there, but a single accident—the explosion of a waste tank in 1957—is thought to have been Chernobyl-like in scale.As recently as the 1990s, the plant was spewing radioactive waste at a rate that makes the leaks of radioactive water from the melted-down Fukushima power plant look like a bubble bath. Residents living around the plant have elevated rates of leukemia and genetic mutations. Their children get cancer.

The United States quit making plutonium in the late 1980s, after it became apparent that both sides had stockpiled enough warheads to destroy civilization. At first, NASA was able to draw on the supply of plutonium-238 left over at Savannah River, but that soon ran out. So it turned to Russia. The first shipment from the Russian plant arrived in the 1990s, and to date, NASA has received about 70 to 90 pounds of plutonium. A few pounds of Stalin’s finest plutonium-238 hitched a ride to Mars on the back of Curiosity.

Even this supply is now running out. Russia has gotten out of the bomb-making business as well, and it’s running low on plutonium-238. NASA is looking for new ways of making it, and this year, it asked Congress for $10 million to investigate the possibility of restarting production at smaller research reactors near Savannah River and in Idaho. This time around, scientists say they’ll do things differently. They’ll be working with smaller quantities in more modern facilities, they’re going to try to find cleaner ways to chemically separate the fuel, and they’ll be subject to environmental regulations—something the old bomb factories avoided by virtue of national security. The circumstances may have changed, but the chemistry and physics haven’t: Making plutonium-238 is still a very sloppy, very radioactive business, and setting up the new facilities won’t be cheap. A review by the National Academies of Science estimates that restarting production will cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

There’s nothing wrong with oooh-ing and aaah-ing over Curiosity’s photos. The project is an incredible achievement, and the science it produces will be amazing. But remember this, too: That little rover on Mars has left a big mess back here on Earth.

 Mars rover Curiosity: its plutonium power comes courtesy of Soviet nukes. – Slate Magazine.

 

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NASA will send robot drill to Mars in 2016 – The Washington Post


 

NASA will send robot drill to Mars in 2016

By Brian Vastag, Monday, August 20, 1:17 PM

In the wake of successfully dropping the SUV-size Curiosity rover on Mars this month, NASA will send another robot to the Red Planet in 2016 to drill into the planet’s crust and, for the first time, piece together a picture of the Martian interior.

The $425 million robotic lander, named InSight, will be built and operated by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, the highflying hotbed of now-famous ­engineers and scientists who designed and assembled the $2.5 billion Curiosity rover and its heart-stopping “sky crane,” which lowered the Curiosity rover to the Martian surface.

On Monday morning, NASA officials informed JPL staff that InSight had won funding over two other proposed missions.

“This is another big day for us out at JPL,” said Gregg Vane, the lab’s head of planning for solar system exploration.

Whereas Curiosity can roam the surface on six wheels, InSight will be planted in one spot after dropping onto the Martian surface — minus the sky crane — in September 2016.

A German-built drill nicknamed “The Mole” will pound 16 feet into the Martian crust to take the temperature of the planet, while a sensitive French-built seismometer will detect any Marsquakes. Together, the instruments will provide vital clues to how Mars formed.

“We’ll be able to deduce the deep structure of Mars, which now is a total mystery,” Vane said. “That means all the way down to the core.”

To date, scientists have determined the deep structure of only one planet — Earth. They know the interior of Mars must be different, because Mars has no magnetic field to shield its surface from radiation. Earth, by contrast, has a strong magnetic field generated by a spinning molten iron core.

Except for the drill and seismometer, which are new, InSight will be a near-copy of the Phoenix lander NASA dropped onto Mars in 2008, which found water ice near the Martian north pole.

In choosing InSight, NASA rejected two riskier missions: a robotic boat that would have floated on a methane lake on Saturn’s moon Titan, and a mission to examine a comet.

Meanwhile, Curiosity has begun shooting its laser “ChemCam” on Mars, blasting a rock Sunday in a successful test of the instrument, which can determine the composition of surface minerals by examining flashes of vaporized gas.

 NASA will send robot drill to Mars in 2016 – The Washington Post.

 

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BBC News – Stricken Mars probe stays silent


1 November 2011

Stricken Mars probe stays silent

Jonathan Amos

Roscosmos poster

The Phobos-Grunt mission had been eagerly awaited by scientists everywhere

Efforts are continuing to try to regain control of the Russian Mars mission that is stuck circling the Earth.

The Phobos-Grunt spacecraft was put in orbit on Wednesday, but failed to fire the engine that was designed to take it on to the Red Planet.

Engineers have been using tracking stations around the globe in an attempt to talk to the probe and diagnose its problems – but without success.

Europe has offered Russia its assistance.

The European Space Agency Spacecraft Operations Centre (Esoc) in Darmstadt, Germany, is now involved in trying to establish a link, using its antennas in French Guiana, the Canary Islands and on the Spanish mainland.

The US space agency (NASA) has also offered to do anything that might bring the wayward craft under full control.

Doug McCuistion, NASA’s director of Mars exploration, told reporters in a briefing about its own forthcoming Red Planet venture, the Curiosity rover: “We have offered assistance and if they need it, we will provide it to the best of our ability.”

Phobos-Grunt launched successfully on its Zenit rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome and was dropped off into an elliptical orbit with an apogee (farthest point from Earth) of 345km.

It was then expected to initiate two firings on its big cruise stage, one to lift it higher in the sky and the second to dispatch it to Mars. Neither burn occurred.

So far, the repeated passes of Phobos-Grunt over ground stations have failed to yield any telemetry.

Phobos-Grunt – Mishap sequence

·         The probe launches successfully on its Zenit rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome

·         It is dropped off 11 minutes later in an elliptical orbit some 345km above the Earth

·         Two firings from the probe’s hydrazine-fuelled cruise stage were planed over South America

·         The first, lasting 11.5 minutes, should have raised the orbit of Phobos-Grunt to 4,000km

·         A second burn, four hours into the mission, was to have sent the probe on a path to Mars

·         Russian space agency officials say neither burn took place

·         The probe remains in a low-Earth orbit while the anomaly is investigated by engineers

·         If it is a software error, new commands could be uploaded to correct it

·         Hardware failure would doom the probe unless a switch to a back-up system is possible

The Russian Interfax news agency reported a space industry source on Friday as saying: “Several attempts have been made overnight to receive telemetry from the spacecraft. The result of all of them was nothing.

“The chance that the station could be saved is very, very slim,” the translation from BBC Monitoring said.

“Russia’s ground systems located at Baikonur and near Medvezhyi Ozera near Moscow will join in these efforts in the evening.”

The community of citizen satellite trackers has, though, reported Phobos-Grunt to be in a stable orientation.

Michael Murphy from Dayton, Ohio, posted on Friday: “I just observed a pass of Phobos-Grunt and the Zenit second stage.

“The rocket body was tumbling slowly, and the probe itself appeared to be very steady as it passed.

“I did not get good timing information, but the probe was definitely steady. I saw no other objects along the track the probe followed,” he told the Phobos-Grunt thread on the SeeSat-L website.

Fellow tracker Ted Molczan from Toronto, Canada, has been trying to determine the precise orbit of Phobos-Grunt around the Earth, and thought on Friday he had seen the craft rise slightly.

“This could all still turn out to be due in some way to spurious [data], but I suspect the effect is real,” he told the same thread. “If venting is occurring, perhaps due to leakage from the propellant system, then the spacecraft could eventually begin to tumble.”

Diagram of mission

If control of Phobos-Grunt cannot be re-established, the focus of interest will very rapidly shift to the spacecraft’s certain fall to Earth.

Residual air molecules more than 200km above the planet will generate drag on the probe and pull it down faster and faster – although it could be some weeks yet before there is an impact.

The spacecraft weighed some 13 tonnes at launch – double the mass of NASA’s recently re-entered UARS satellite.

What is more, most of the 13 tonnes is made up by the propellants unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH) and dinitrogen tetroxide (DTO), both of which are toxic.

It was the presence of a large quantity of toxic propellants on the returning spy satellite USA-193 that the American government used to justify its decision to shoot down the spacecraft with a missile in 2008.

Landing site

If the Phobos-Grunt mission is truly lost, then professional and amateur groups will be modeling the decay in its orbit in an attempt to determine precisely where and when it might come down.

As with UARS, much of the spacecraft will burn up in the atmosphere; but any parts made of high-temperature metals, such as titanium or stainless steel, stand a chance of making all the way to the surface.

Indeed, it is the fuel tanks that often survive the fall, their spherical shapes enabling them to spin up and dissipate heat more easily.

However, the probability is that any debris would hit the ocean, given that more than 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered by water. This was the case with UARS and the German Rosat X-Ray telescope that returned to Earth last month.

But no-one wants to see Phobos-Grunt end this way. This exciting mission had been eagerly awaited by scientists all over the world.

Its quest is to land on the Martian moon Phobos and scoop up rock for return to Earth. Such a venture could yield fascinating new insights into the origin of the 27km-wide moon and the planet it circles.

The mission is also notable because it carries China’s first Mars satellite, Yinghuo-1.

 BBC News – Stricken Mars probe stays silent.

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