Japan’s Akatsuki probe enters Venus’s orbit after floating through space for five years

By Rick Stella

After spending the last five years essentially lost in space, the Japanese probe Akatsuki fired up its engines this last weekend in hopes of finally entering the orbit of Venus. Though the craft previously reached Earth’s sister back in December of 2010, a faulty engine valve failed to propel the craft fast enough to catch the planet’s orbit, effectively closing its window of opportunity. Now, five years later, engineers at the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) confirmed the wayward Akatsuki spacecraft is now officially orbiting Venus.

During Akatsuki’s 2010 attempt, instead of positioning itself to fly into Venus’s elliptical equatorial orbit, the spacecraft’s malfunctioning engine’s prevented it from properly braking. Falling fuel pressure and a decrease in thrust improperly positioned the craft and before long, Akatsuki’s on-board fault protection shut the engine down to prevent complete failure. Once this happened, the probe flew right past Venus without catching the orbit.

Artist rendition of the Akatsuki orbiting Venus

Artist rendition of the Akatsuki orbiting Venus

To make matters worse, Akatsuki was completely covered by Venus during its engine burn meaning communication was non-existent with Earth during the attempt. Because of this, JAXA was unable to see exactly what happened until reading the probe’s recorded telemetry dataafter it had a go at entering the orbit of Venus. Lucky for the team behind Akatsuki, it became apparent a rare second chance would avail itself in the future; unfortunately, this second chance was five years away.

Opportunistic and hopeful, JAXA patiently waited five years for its second crack at Venus and, triumphantly, the agency prevailed. By making use of a set of small thrusters aboard the Akatsuki, engineers were able to slightly alter the probe’s trajectory so it could be pulled in by the gravity of Venus. Though the new orbit of the craft is slightly off what JAXA originally intended, the crew couldn’t help but get excited at Akatsuki’s renewed mission.

“We had a perfect operation,” exclaimed Masato Nakamura, JAXA’s project manager. “We have to wait another two days to confirm the orbit. I am very optimistic. It is important to believe in success!”

Now that it can examine Venus as it originally intended, JAXA intends to study the planet’s atmosphere while Akatsuki orbits at speeds of up to 186 miles per hour. They say patience is a virtue, but in the case of JAXA and its revitalized Akatsuki spacecraft, patience was absolutely essential.

Why Japan’s mission to Venus has been so full of drama

 

Russia Reportedly Plans To Build A Lunar Base By The 2030s

Jason Torchinsky

Russia Reportedly Plans To Build A Lunar Base By The 2030s

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Decades and decades after they pretended never to be in a “moon race” with the U.S., Russia reportedly plans to land cosmonauts on the moon by the 2030s, according to the news agency TASS. The most recent plans call for up to six launches of the Angara A5V heavy-lift rocket to put enough hardware into orbit for their first mission, which appears to involve establishing a lunar base.

A lunar base, for real. Long the stuff of science fiction, it seems Russia is trying to do this for real, or at least wants to. The BBC reported in October that the Russian and European space agencies are preparing to go to the moon with an eventual settlement in mind.

The most obvious difference between the plans for Russia’s first manned lunar mission and the American one 46 years ago is in the number of launches. The U.S. did it with one massive Saturn V launch, so why are the Russians planning a mission that requires so many launches?

Part of the reason is that the Saturn V had about four times the lifting capacity of the Angara rockets, but that’s not the full story. Back when the Russians wore more red and called themselves the ‘Soviets.’ they also tried the single, massive launcher approach to a moon landing: the failed N1 rocket. It’s not that I don’t think the Russians couldn’t build a working, massive launch vehicle, I just think they realized for them it doesn’t make sense.

Russia Reportedly Plans To Build A Lunar Base By The 2030s

The Angara rocket will eventually replace the Russian workhorse heavy-lift rocket, Proton. It makes more sense to develop a launch vehicle that has commercial and other uses as well, as opposed to building a massive super-heavy lift vehicle. The US only used the Saturn V for the seven moon landing launches (only six made it; if you’ve seen Apollo 13, you know the story), the lunar-and-earth orbiting manned and unmaned Apollo test missions, and then once again to launch Skylab, America’s first space station.

The Saturn V was a tremendous achievement, but it wasn’t exactly a useful multi-purpose launch vehicle, and I think the Russians want the Angara to get them to the moon and make some money launching satellites.

The other reason is that, according to sources talking to TASS, the first Russian mission to the moon will be more than a “flags and footprints” deal—they want to establish an actual lunar base, of some sort. With that in mind, here’s the breakdown of the six launches:

According to the source, a manned flight to the moon is possible under a scheme envisaging two coupled launches. First, a lunar take-off and landing complex is placed on a low Earth orbit, and then the upper stage with effective cryogenic propellants is orbited. The third launch orbits a manned spacecraft, and the fourth – another upper stage. After docking of the lunar take-off and landing complex with the manned spacecraft on the lunar orbit, the crew descends to the Moon surface inside the lunar take-off and landing complex, carries out the research program and returns to orbit. After that the spaceship returns to Earth.

Also, another coupled Angara-A5V launch will be needed before the manned flight to deliver and deploy the first expeditionary unit of the lunar base on the Moon.

So, what we’re basically looking at are three pairs of launches, with each pair including a payload and an ‘upper stage’ — essentially a rocket designed to get that payload to the moon. Let’s call each pair of launches ‘modules’ because that sounds like the sort of language space-folks like to use. That would break down the launches (in groups of two, remember) like this:

• Module 1: Lunar lander and rocket to get it to the moon

• Module 2: Manned orbiter/command module/return vehicle and rocket to get it to the moon

• Module 3: Lunar base unit and rocket to get it to the moon

… and, from what I can gather from the brief description, here’s an infographic of how it seems this mission will likely go down:

Russia Reportedly Plans To Build A Lunar Base By The 2030s2

A few things to note: manned orbiter/command/return spacecraft shown is not a Soyuz derivative, but rather Russia’s Advanced Crew Transportation System (ACTS), a two-module, truncated-cone capsule system that looks and awful lot like the US’s Orion. This is one of the many Soyuz-successors that’s been planned for a long time, sometimes with ESA involvement, sometimes not. I think it’s possible that this component could be replaced with a cheaper Soyuz-derived solution if this mission actually happens.

Also, there’s no information yet about just what the “lunar base” might turn out to be. It can’t be too large at this early stage, since it’s just one module that’s being launched the same way as everything else, meaning it’ll have to be similar in size and weight to the lander or ACTS.

My guess is we’ll see a single-cylinder module, something like a lander but replacing the launch engine with more robust life support systems. It’ll be a small base to start with, but I suspect it will be modular, and subsequent launches would add modules to it, just like how we build space stations, but sitting on the lunar surface.

Here’s what TASS speculates:

The continuation of the Luna program could be the beginning of Russian plans to establish a lunar base sometime in the 2030s. The proposed base would include a solar power station, telecommunication station, technological station, scientific station, long-range research rover, landing and launch area, and an orbiting satellite.

Even if it’s modest at first, a permanent lunar base is exactly what would be needed to make this mission relevant, so many decades after people first walked on the moon. New manufacturing methods, including 3D printing, have been developed that can make the use of lunar regolith as a building material possible, and the promise of eventual mining of Helium-3 as a fuel for hoped-for fusion reactors are finally giving lunar bases enough justification to exist.

Russia Reportedly Plans To Build A Lunar Base By The 2030s

It’s an ambitious idea, and I think it’s at least technically possible. Russia has had many advanced programs proposed in the past decade or so (like, say, the Kliper spaceplane) that eventually came to nothing due more to economic issues than anything else, so I’m not convinced yet any of this actually will happen.

Still, I hope it does, and maybe the threat that the Russians will steal the lunar rover and sell it on eBay.ru will be enough to get our American asses back in gear and get a lunar base of our own.

I’m very curious to see how this all plays out.

 

 

Russia, US could collaborate on mission to Venus

 

Jet Propulsion Lab/NASA/AP/FileView CaptionAbout video adsView Caption

After a pause following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, NASA and Russia’s space agency have resumed talks about the proposed Venera-D mission, which would orbit and land on Earth’s closest neighbor.

What Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin were discussing in that huddle at the G20 Summit earlier this week will likely remain a secret for some time. But could they have been talking about Venus?

While brinksmanship simmers over targeting the Islamic State in Syria and over the Kremlin’s actions in Ukraine, NASA has reportedly “resumed discussions” in October with Russia about a possible joint robot-led mission to Venus in the late 2020s, Spaceflight Now reports. The annexation of Crimea had put the potential venture on hold, though cooperation with the International Space Station continued, scientists involved in the talks said.

So far, NASA has only committed to a one-year feasibility study, which will culminate in a report for top officials in NASA and in Russia’s Moscow-based Space Research Institute (IKI). From there, officials will decide whether to pursue a cooperative mission to Venus, said Rob Landis, a program executive at NASA Headquarters, on Oct. 27, speaking from the Venus Exploration Analysis Group meeting in Washington.
The so-called “joint science definition team” reportedly convened in Moscow from Oct. 5-8, and scientists have slated two more in-person talks in Russia over the next year.
Scientists from the Russia’s IKI are heading up Venera-D, which is being considered as a chance to both orbit and land on Earth’s closest neighbor. NASA and IKI are also looking into whether the mission can accommodate a balloon that could to take wind and climate measurements from Venus’s scorching atmosphere.

Russia has a storied past with Venus, while for the US, this feasibility study comes as a new distraction from America’s first planetary love: Mars.

After nine failed tries at launching probes to Venus beginning in 1961, the Soviet Union’s Venera 7 landed successfully on the planet in 1970 – marking the first successful landing and communication from another planet. The subsequent Venera 8, 9, and 10 probes also all landed safely, with number 9 returning the first photos of the Venusian surface, Ars Technica reports.

With the Venera-D mission, which Russia first began planning in 2004, Russia aspires to land a more durable spacecraft on the surface of Venus, which is a hostile environment in the best of circumstances. The “D” in the mission stands for “dolgozhivushaya,” which means long-lasting. Venus’s average surface temperature can top 860 degrees Fahrenheit, and surface pressure is 92 times what it is on Earth.
IKI Director Lev Zelyony told Russian news Interfax that a joint flight will be possible after 2025.

By teaming up with NASA, Russia reportedly hopes to split the cost burden. NASA, for its part, has identified research objectives that an orbit and possible landing may accomplish. The agency’s Venus analysis group says its goal is to figure out how Venus diverged so dramatically from Earth, and relatedly, to further understand the “formation, evolution, and climate history on Venus.”

“We made a lot of progress,” said David Senske, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who is the US co-chair of the Venera-D science definition team. “We heard a lot about what they had in mind. We’ve been told this is an IKI/Roscosmos endeavor, so they’re in the driver’s seat.”

NASA and IKI have a deadline: The joint team’s report is due Sept. 30, 2016. Then a decision will be made as to whether a Russia-US mission to Venus is a go.

AN ASTEROID MINING TEST VEHICLE JUST LAUNCHED FROM THE SPACE STATION

ROBO SPACE MINERS, DEPLOY!

Arkyd 3 Reflight Deploys From The ISS

NASA via Planetary Resources

Planetary Resources, a company that wants to mine asteroids for precious materials, has just launched a demonstration vehicle to test out its asteroid mining technologies. The breadbox-sized Arkyd 3 Reflight (A3R) is so-named because the original Arkyd 3 died a fiery death in the Orbital Sciences explosion in October. This one survived its launch to the International Space Station in April, and today, astronauts booted it out of an airlock to see how it fares in low Earth orbit.

The vehicle’s mission is to test out components that the company later plans to send into deep space to visit resource-rich asteroids, with the goal of extracting water, which can be broken down in to hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel, and valuable metals, including platinum.

Over the next 90 days or so, the little spacecraft will test out its avionics and control systems–it won’t actually be doing any drilling anytime soon. While low Earth orbit isn’t a perfect facsimile to deep space, it will give the components a taste of the harsh environments they would face on the job—including extremely cold temperatures, radiation, and the vacuum of space. By pinpointing the components’ weaknesses in low Earth orbit, the company can hopefully fix any problems before sending spacecraft further beyond Earth.

The test is going according to plan so far, a Planetary Resources spokesperson told Popular Science.

Arkyd 3

Planetary Resources

About the size of a loaf of bread, the Arkyd 3 Reflight launched today from the International Space Station.

Later this year, Planetary Resources plans to launch another demonstration vehicle, the Arkyd-6. Twice the size of the A3R, the A6 will test out avionics, attitude control, power, and communications systems. (Notably, the robo-prospectors will eventually use LASERS to communicate with Earth.)

Onboard the A6 will also be an infrared imaging system, which will eventually scan asteroids for water and minerals. A Planetary Resources press release says “the system will first test targeted areas of our own planet before being deployed to near-Earth asteroids on future missions.”

The Arkyd-6 Test Vehicle Will Launch Later This Year

Planetary Resources

Later on, the company will figure out the best way to extract the resources from asteroids. But here’s one way it could be done, from a Planetary Resources video:

 

China has had a telescope on the moon for the past two years

China has had a telescope on the moon for the past two years

China has had a telescope on the moon for the past two years
Point a telescope at the moon, and you might just see one looking back. Chinese researchers have reported that their robotic telescope, the first of its kind, has been operating flawlessly ever since it landed on the moon in 2013.

The 15-centimetre telescope is mounted on the Chang’e 3 lander, which touched down on the lunar surface in December 2013. Chang’e 3 (pictured above) carried the Yutu rover, which repeatedly struggled to survive the lunar night and ceased working in March this year – but the lander is still going strong.

The telescope sees in ultraviolet light, making it particularly suited for observations that aren’t possible here on Earth. “There is no atmosphere on the moon, so unlike Earth, the ultraviolet light from celestial objects can be detected on the moon,” says Jing Wang of the National Astronomical Observatories in Beijing, China, who is in charge of the telescope. And since the moon rotates 27 times more slowly than the Earth, the scope can stay fixed on the same star for a dozen days without interruption, he says.

Snapping Earth
In a paper published this week, Wang and his colleagues detail the first 18 months of the telescope’s operation, during which it has observed for 2000 hours and monitored 40 stars. The team also captured a picture of the Pinwheel galaxy, shown below.

China has had a telescope on the moon for the past two years

Astronauts on the Apollo 16 mission had a manually operated UV telescope, which they used to take pictures of Earth, stars and the Large Magellanic Cloud. But the Chinese telescope is the first to be operated remotely from Earth.

That’s a challenge, because the moon is a hostile environment, full of charged and abrasive lunar dust that can get into equipment and destroy electronics, as Yutu’s troubles demonstrate. To counter this, the telescope is stowed within Chang’e 3 during sunrise and sunset on the moon, when dust is thought to be at its worst, and has survived much longer than its expected one year life. Wang says the scope is still working today, and the team are awaiting a decision to continue its mission past the end of this year.

Journal reference: arxiv.org/abs/1510.01435

Image information (from top): The Chang’e 3 lander (credit: Xinhua/Corbis); Picture of the Pinwheel galaxy captured by the telescope on the moon lander (credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences/The Bruce Murray Space Image Library/The Planetary Society)

By Jacob Aron

NASA’s wild new plan to hunt for life on Mars would test SpaceX in ways never done before

Jessica Orwig

spacexSpaceX Photos on Flickr

There are 99 Mars rocks on Earth, but they’re not the kind that scientists need in order to resolve the all-too-intriguing  mystery of whether there is — or once was — life on Mars.

So far, all efforts to answer this question have painted a picture of an ancient Mars once covered in water with a thicker atmosphere and warmer temperatures — a world similar to Earth. But no signs of past or present life have been found, yet.

That’s why a team of scientists at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California have come up with a wild notion to do what has never been done before: transport rocks currently on Mars to Earth.

NASA has been seriously considering a sample-return mission like this for a while, ranking it as the highest-priority big-budget mission for the future in the U.S. National Research Center’s 2013 decadal survey. The return mission that NASA envisioned in 2013 would cost $6 billion, but the team at NASA’s Ames Research Center thinks they might have found a cheaper way.

Enter the “Red Dragon” mission, which would see NASA team up with Elon Musk’s company SpaceX, once again, for an epic mission of engineering firsts, including the first time anyone will have launched a vehicle off the surface of Mars.

spaceXSpaceX Photos

The project would launch a modified version of SpaceX’s current Dragon spacecraft to the Red Planet by as early as 2022, hence the project name “Red Dragon.”

The project is “technically feasible with the use of these emerging commercial technologies, coupled with technologies that already exist,” NASA senior systems aerospace engineer Andy Gonzales told NBC News.

Why we need to get Mars rocks back to Earth

Right now, the only Mars rocks available to scientist are not really rocks at all. They’re meteorites that were flung into space by a powerful impact and later plummeted to Earth at blazing speeds of more than 160,000 miles per hour.

However, this sort of rough, bumpy ride might have destroyed any valuable evidence within the rocks that could point to past life on Mars. And while NASA’s Curiosity rover is currently drilling into the Martian surface in search for signs of ancient alien life, it has come up empty-handed.

To determine, once and for all, whether Mars once harbored a thriving ecosystem on its watery and warm former self, scientists need to get their hands on Martian rocks that are sitting on the surface right now.

mars waterESO/M. KornmesserIllustration of what Mars might have looked like covered in water billions of years ago.

“Red Dragon” would follow NASA’s Mars 2020 mission, scheduled to launch a rover similar to Curiosity to Mars in 2020 — if the project is fully funded.

The Dragon spacecraft would then retrieve the samples taken by the Mars 2020 rover, store them in a Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), which would then launch the samples back to Earth, as described in the graphic below:

red dragon mission conceptNASA Ames Research Center/Red Dragon Internal Study Team

Gonzales and his team have not approached SpaceX yet to see if Elon Musk and his company would actually be interested in such a mission. First, the team needs to get NASA to approve the concept and fund the mission, which was first proposed last year.

Despite no funding in site, Gonzales is still actively pushing for the project, which he discussed last week during a NASA Future In-Space Operations working group. Gonzales told NBC News that his team has not estimated the total cost of “Red Dragon” but they suspect it will cost less than NASA’s $6 billion mission envisioned in the U.S. National Research Center’s 2013 decadal survey.

Stunning images reveal SpaceX’s revolutionary approach to landing on Mars

Elon Musk’s private company SpaceX has big plans to usher in a new era of reusable rockets that could send the first humans to Mars and return them home.

And as mind-blowing as these innovative ideas are, the video animations and illustrations that bring Space X’s goals to life are equally impressive.

But these animations and illustrations aren’t just fiction and propaganda: They are a way for SpaceX to envision the future and make it a reality.

For example, in 2011 SpaceX released a videoshowing how they were going to re-land a rocket booster after launching it to space — something that had never been done before. And in 2015, SpaceX began attempting to land their rockets exactly how they had envisioned in the video.

(Neither of the two attempted landings, so far, have succeeded.)

And if you check out the latest photos and illustrations on SpaceX’s Flickr account, you’ll see something that is even cooler than landing a rocket on Earth: Landing a spacecraft on Mars. And judging from the illustrations, SpaceX plans to land on Mars using a super-simple approach that has never been tried before.

This is SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, which is not designed to carry humans, sitting on the Red Planet:

spaceXSpaceX Photos

SpaceX will first send its Dragon capsule to Mars before transporting a crew on board its Crew Dragon spacecraft, which is designed to carry seven astronauts at a time and is currently being tested by SpaceX for its debut launch, scheduled for 2017.

This unmanned Dragon capsule has been making trips to the International Space Station since 2010. But to get to Mars, which is 560,000 times farther, the Dragon will need to ride a more powerful rocket than the Falcon 9, which it takes to the ISS.

That rocket is SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, illustrated below, that is scheduled to launch out of Kennedy Space Center for the first time next year.

spaceXSpaceX on Flickr

However, this monster rocket will only take Dragon so far. Getting to Mars is easy compared to landing on it because the Martian atmosphere is a tricky beast to control.

The Martian atmosphere is about 1,000 times thinner than Earth’s, so simple parachutes won’t slow a vehicle down enough to land safely.

But that atmosphere is still thick enough to generate a great deal of heat from friction against a spacecraft.Therefore, to land on Mars you have to have a spacecraft with a heat shield that can withstand temperature of 1600 degrees Fahrenheit.

Luckily, Dragon’s heat shield can protect it against temperatures of over 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, so plummeting toward Mars, illustrated below, shouldn’t be a problem heat-wise.

spacexSpaceX Photos on Flickr

But there’s still the problem of slowing down. Although gravity on Mars is about 1/3 of what it is on Earth, the vehicle is still plummeting toward the ground at over 1,000 miles per hour after entering Mars’s atmosphere. If it were to hit the ground at those speeds, you’d have a disaster.

The way that SpaceX aims to deal with this tricky problem is to use the thrusters on board the Dragon spacecraft to first redirect its momentum from downward to sideways, as illustrated below, thus reducing its speed:

spacexSpaceX Photos on Flickr

And then, as the spacecraft continues to plunge toward the surface, it will fire its thrusters one final time for a soft, vertical touch down:

spacexSpaceX Photo on Flickr

This sort of landing is unlike anything that anyone has ever tried before, but you have to admit that Dragon looks pretty great on Mars if it ever manages to get there:

spaceXSpaceX Photo on Flickr

The last major Mars landing was NASA’s Curiosity rover in 2012. This landing was a huge success but extremely complicated that involved half a dozen steps that, if not completed perfectly, would end in disaster. NASA dubbed the landing process “7 minutes of terror” because that’s how long it took to enter the atmosphere and land.

SpaceX has not announced when it plans to first send a Dragon spacecraft to Mars. However, there is a project called “Red Dragon” that NASA is considering and would involve sending a Dragon to Mars to retrieve samples collected by NASA’s Mars 2020 rover and then return them to Earth. This project has not yet been selected for funding by NASA but if funded could launch as early as 2022.

  • Jessica Orwig

 

Does oxygen necessarily mean aliens?

Astrobiologists find that the presence of oxygen in a planet’s atmosphere may not necessarily mean that life exists there.

By Eva Botkin-Kowacki

Scientists and E.T. enthusiasts may have to rethink an allegedly telltale sign that a planet has life.

The presence of oxygen, specifically O2 , in a planet’s atmosphere has long been thought to be a near-certain signal that there are, or at least were, living organisms engaging in photosynthesis on the planet. But new research suggests that oxygen can exist in large quantities without being produced by living things.

A study published Thursday in Scientific Reports found that some planets could have “abiotic” oxygen, produced through a a photocatalytic reaction of titanium oxide

China aims to be first to land probe on moon’s far side

Image result for far side of the moon

BEIJING (AP) — China’s space program says it plans to attempt the first-ever landing of a lunar probe on the moon’s far side.

 

Zou Yongliao from the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ moon exploration department told state broadcaster CCTV on Wednesday that the Chang’e 4 mission is planned for sometime before 2020.

 

Zou said the objective of the mission would be to study geological conditions on the moon’s far side, also known as the dark side. Radio transmissions from Earth are unable to reach the far side, making it an excellent location to place a radio telescope for use by astronomers.

 

China’s next lunar mission is scheduled for 2017, when it will attempt to land an unmanned spaceship on the moon before returning to Earth with samples..