The SETI Institute, NASA Ames Research Center, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory are teaming up with the National Park Service to present the third annual MarsFest in Death Valley National Park on 28-30 March, 2014.

The free event will include scientist-led field trips to analog sites Mars Hill, Badwater Basin, Ubehebe Volcanic Field, and the Mesquite Sand Dunes, as well as guest lectures at the park’s Furnace Creek Visitor Center.

More information and advance registration are available here.

Written by Astro1 on March 24th, 2014 , Education, Events, Planetary science

Viking image of Mars (composite)

Thierry Montmerle, the General Secretary of the International Astronomical Union is throwing a tantrum over Uwingu’s program to crowd-source informal names for craters on Mars.

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Written by Astro1 on March 11th, 2014 , Planetary science

"Red Dragon" Mars Sample-Return Mission Architecture

NASA could launch a Mars sample-return mission in 2022 without breaking the bank, according to an internal study conducted at NASA Ames Research Center. The mission would use a slightly modified version of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, called Red Dragon.

Red Dragon could land two tons (twice the weight of the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity) on the Martian surface. The payload would include a new Mars Ascent Vehicle, Earth Return Vehicle, and equipment to drill two meters into the Martian surface.

The NASA Ames study team presented a paper at the IEEE Aerospace Conference, which took place this week in Montana. Leonard David has details on Space.com.

Written by Astro1 on March 8th, 2014 , Planetary science, SpaceX

Tumbleweed rovers are inflatable balls with mechanical control structures. Rolling across the Martian surface like a mechanical tumbleweed, such a rover could move faster and cover more ground than a wheeled rover like the Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory, at much lower cost. NASA and a number of universities have built and tested prototypes. NASA has tested prototypes in the Mojave Desert and the frozen waste of Antarctica.


A tumbleweed rover would use the Martian wind for locomotion and shifting balance for control. According to previous work at JPL, tumbleweed rovers could achieve speeds of 20 miles per hour in typical afternoon winds, compared to a top speed of 0.1 miles per hour for Curiosity. A tumbleweed rover 6 meters in diameter could climb over one-meter rocks and travel up 20-degree slopes in moderate winds and 45-degree slopes in strong winds. A 6-meter diameter rover would have a mass of 44 pounds and a 44-pound science payload. (The Curiosity rover weighs over 1,980 pounds.) Additionally, the rover’s inflatable ball can function as both parachute and airbag for the landing, saving on overall system weight.

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Written by Astro1 on August 25th, 2012 , Innovation, Planetary science

The electromagnetic signature of lightning storms can be used to probe planetary atmospheres, providing information about the global density of constituents such as water, methane, and ammonia around the entire planet. Combining the technique with other instruments could provide a more accurate inventory of the planet’s atmosphere.

Schumann resonance lightning signature

The signature, known as Schumann Resonance, is created by lightning storms around the globe. On Earth, for example, there are an average of 50 lightning flashes every second. The discharges combine to create a beating pulse of electromagnetic waves that circles the Earth between the ground and the lower ionosphere.

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Written by Astro1 on May 4th, 2012 , Atmospheric Science, Planetary science

The First Interplanetary CubeSat Workshop, scheduled to take place May 29-30 in Cambridge, MA has filled up for both attendees and visitors. A waiting list has been created.

The workshop has received more than 40 “high quality” abstracts.

This unexpectedly strong interest in interplanetary CubeSat missions is a good sign. During the 1990’s, NASA looked to innovative low-cost Discovery and New Horizon missions as a solution to cost escalation and cost overruns. The motto in those days was “No more Cassinis!” Unfortunately, that changed after a few highly publicized (and highly politicized) mission failures. The result is cost-busting missions like the James Webb Space Telescope and Mars Science Laboratory. Even Discovery-class missions have escalated in cost and complexity. The merits of conducting frequent, low-cost missions are undeniable, however. Thanks to rapid advances in microelectronics, the idea of low-cost planetary missions is reemerging in the form of  CubeSats.

Best of all, since CubeSat is an open standard, there is a better chance the interplanetary CubeSat idea will survive even if NASA or it’s political masters lose interest.

Written by Astro1 on April 19th, 2012 , Nanosatellites, Planetary science

A new citizen-science project from NASA is enlisting amateur astronomers to help discover near-Earth asteroids and study their characteristics.

The project, called Target Asteroids, will support NASA’s Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security – Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission. OSIRIS-REx, which will study material from asteroid 1999 RQ36, is scheduled for launch in 2016.

Amateur astronomers participating in the project will help characterize the near-Earth asteroid population by recording their position, motion, rotation, and changes in brightness. Professional astronomers will use the information to refine theoretical models, improving their understanding of asteroids similar to the one OSIRIS-REx will encounter in 2019.

OSIRIS-REx will map the asteroid’s global properties, measure non-gravitational forces, and make observations that can be compared with data from telescopes on Earth. In 2023, OSIRIS-REx will return to Earth with 60 grams of surface material from the asteroid.

Previous observations indicate 1999 RQ36 is made of primitive materials. OSIRIS-REx data will provide new insights into the nature of the early solar system and the building blocks that led to life on Earth.

Amateur astronomers have provided tracking observations in support of NASA’s Near Earth Object Observation Program for more than 10 years. This traching data is important for selecting targets for asteroid missions such as OSIRIS-REx.

“Although few amateur astronomers have the capability to observe 1999 RQ36 itself, they do have the capability to observe other targets,” said Jason Dworkin, OSIRIS-REx project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Partner organizations in the Target Asteroid program include the International Astronomical Search Collaboration, the Astronomical League, the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers, Oceanside Photo and Telescope, the NASA Night Sky Network, the University of Arizona Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter, and the Catalina Sky Survey.

For more information on Target Asteroids, or to register for the program, click here.

Written by Astro1 on April 18th, 2012 , Astronomy, Planetary science Tags:

The Open University has created an online course covering the solar system’s most important satellites. Course materials include videos on Earth’s Moon as well as Europa, Phobos, Deimos, and Titan, an interactive quiz book, and a multi-touch textbook on moon rocks. All available free on iTunes.

Moons: an introduction from The Open University

Written by Astro1 on April 11th, 2012 , Education, Lunar Science, Planetary science Tags:

Robert Staehle of JPL gave a presentation on Interplanetary CubeSats at NASA’s Institute of Advanced Concepts On March 28. The interplanetary CubeSat idea is rapidly catching on, as demonstrated by the Interplanetary CubeSat Workshop scheduled to take place at MIT on May 29-30 with NASA Chief Technologist Mason Peck as keynote speaker.


(You can view the presentation at http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/16504727 if the YouTube video is unavailable.)

The interplanetary CubeSat concept is evolving rapidly. Staehle assumes that solar sails are arequired technology for propulsion. Another option has already emerged, however. The Microsystems for Space Technologies Laboratory at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne’ has created a small ion engine for CubeSat-sized payloads. Theion drive weighs only 200 g including enough propellant to send a CubeSat from Earth orbit to the Moon or Mars


Planetary missions may soon be within reach of citizen scientists. Just getting a CubeSat into Earth orbit remains a problem, though. NASA’s Nano-Satellite Launch Challenge prize may help. A number of companies are already working on innovative solutions to the problem, including Premiere Space Systems (Nanolaunch) and XCOR Aerospace.

Written by Astro1 on March 31st, 2012 , Innovation, Lunar Science, Nanosatellites, Planetary science