samedi 6 juin 2015

Solar Impulse pending better skies

SolarImpulse - Around the World patch.

June 6, 2015

Solar Impulse 2 is since Wednesday morning under the shelter of its hangar in Nagoya, where he had to stop Monday night due to bad weather.

Image Above: The Solar Impulse 2 flies over Nagoya Airport in Toyoyama, near Nagoya, central Japan, ict Shortly before landing Monday, June 1, 2015.

Downtime in Japan, where begins the annual rainy season, is unknown. The solar plane "is safe under his mobile hangar. We can now perform maintenance tasks and wait for a new good weather window to steal, "wrote the organizers of the mission on Twitter.

He, they say, took a good ten hours of night work to set up the table, which only arrived on Tuesday evening (local time), together with the logistics team, blocked several hours in Shanghai due to bad weather.

Image above: Solar Impulse 2 is since Wednesday morning under the shelter of its hangar in Nagoya, where he had to stop Monday night due to bad weather.

Solar Impulse 2 is a fragile airplane that does not support the turbulence in the air and is not designed to stay thank you from the wind, heat and rain, even to the ground.

Exposed to rain

It rained in the night from Tuesday to Wednesday in Nagoya. This is the first time in its global journey he found himself briefly in a downpour. The aircraft is tight, "but it is more safe in the shelter," acknowledged the team.

This device with wings covered with photovoltaic cells had to interrupt his Pacific crossing between Nanjing and Hawaii to make an unexpected stop in Nagoya on Monday because of deteriorating weather conditions.

Image above: Solar Impulse 2 is since Wednesday morning under the shelter of its hangar in Nagoya.

After arriving in this central region of Japan, "we had to improvise and our team has experienced difficult times," said Tuesday the Swiss pilot Bertrand Piccard. "Ten people have been forced to hold the device with their own hands to prevent it from flying itself," he explained.

The take-off speed of the aircraft, "very light and with a vast area of ​​45 km/h, so at the slightest gust of wind, it can be carried away," he said.

Solar Impulse 2 left on March 9 Abu Dhabi to a world tour of 35,000 kilometers, both technological challenge and aviation achievement. He then made a stop in Oman, India, Burma and China.

For more information about Solar Impulse Around the World, visit:

Images, Text, Credits: SolarImpulse / ATS / Aerospace.


LHC experiments back in business at record energy

CERN - European Organization for Nuclear Research logo.

June 6, 2015

Image above: Collisions seen within the ALICE experiment's detector (Image: ALICE/CERN).

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) started delivering physics data today for the first time in 27 months. After an almost two year shutdown and several months re-commissioning, the LHC is now providing collisions to all of its experiments at the unprecedented energy of 13 TeV, almost double the collision energy of its first run. This marks the start of season 2 at the LHC, opening the way to new discoveries. The LHC will now run round the clock for the next three years.

Image above: In the CERN Control Centre, the LHC operations team as well as members of CERN management applaud the announcement of stable beams this morning at 10.40am (Image: Maximilien Brice/CERN).

Image above: Display of proton-proton collision events recorded by ATLAS on 3 June 2015, with the first LHC stable beams at a collision energy of 13 TeV. Tracks reconstructed from hits in the inner tracking detector are shown as arcs curving in the solenoidal magnetic field. The green and yellow bars indicate energy deposits in the liquid argon and scintillating-tile calorimeters. (Image ATLAS/CERN).

“With the LHC back in the collision-production mode, we celebrate the end of two months of beam commissioning,” said CERN Director of Accelerators and Technology Frédérick Bordry. “It is a great accomplishment and a rewarding moment for all of the teams involved in the work performed during the long shutdown of the LHC, in the powering tests and in the beam commissioning process. All these people have dedicated so much of their time to making this happen.”

Image above: Collisions as seen within the LHCb experiment's detector (Image: LHCb/CERN).

On 3 June 2015 at 10.40am, the LHC operators declared “stable beams”, the signal for the LHC experiments that they can start taking data. Beams are made of “trains” of proton bunches moving at almost the speed of light around the 27 kilometre ring of the LHC. These so-called bunch trains circulate in opposite directions, guided by powerful superconducting magnets. Today the LHC was filled with 6 bunches each containing around 100 billion protons. This rate will be progressively increased as the run goes on to 2808 bunches per beam, allowing the LHC to produce up to 1 billion collisions per second.

Image above: Collisions seen within the CMS experiment's detector (Image: CMS/CERN).

For more information see the live blog that covered events as they unfolded:

See a gallery of images from the day:


CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, is one of the world’s largest and most respected centres for scientific research. Its business is fundamental physics, finding out what the Universe is made of and how it works. At CERN, the world’s largest and most complex scientific instruments are used to study the basic constituents of matter — the fundamental particles. By studying what happens when these particles collide, physicists learn about the laws of Nature.

The instruments used at CERN are particle accelerators and detectors. Accelerators boost beams of particles to high energies before they are made to collide with each other or with stationary targets. Detectors observe and record the results of these collisions.

Founded in 1954, the CERN Laboratory sits astride the Franco–Swiss border near Geneva. It was one of Europe’s first joint ventures and now has 22 Member States.

Related link:

Large Hadron Collider (LHC):

For more information about the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), visit:

Images (mentioned), Text, Credits: CERN/Cian O'Luanaigh.


vendredi 5 juin 2015

Fresh Crater Near Sirenum Fossae Region of Mars

NASA - Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) logo.

June 5, 2015

The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter acquired this closeup image of a "fresh" (on a geological scale, though quite old on a human scale) impact crater in the Sirenum Fossae region of Mars on March 30, 2015.

This impact crater appears relatively recent as it has a sharp rim and well-preserved ejecta. The steep inner slopes are carved by gullies and include possible recurring slope lineae on the equator-facing slopes. Fresh craters often have steep, active slopes, so the HiRISE team is monitoring this crater for changes over time. The bedrock lithology is also diverse. The crater is a little more than 1-kilometer wide.

Artist's view of NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO)

More information and image products:

The University of Arizona, Tucson, operates HiRISE, which was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colorado. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Project and Mars Science Laboratory Project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington.

For more information about NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), visit: and

Images, Text, Credits: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/Caption: Alfred McEwen.


jeudi 4 juin 2015

Charting the Milky Way From the Inside Out

NASA - Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) patch.

June 4, 2015

Image above: This artist's concept depicts the most up-to-date information about the shape of our own Milky Way galaxy. We live around a star, our sun, located about two-thirds of the way out from the center. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (SSC/Caltech).

Imagine trying to create a map of your house while confined to only the living room. You might peek through the doors into other rooms or look for light spilling in through the windows. But, in the end, the walls and lack of visibility would largely prevent you from seeing the big picture.

The job of mapping our own Milky Way galaxy from planet Earth, situated about two-thirds of the way out from the galaxy's center, is similarly difficult. Clouds of dust permeate the Milky Way, blocking our view of the galaxy's stars. Today, researchers have a suitable map of our galaxy's spiral structure, but, like early explorers charting new territory, they continue to patiently and meticulously fill in the blanks.

Recently, researchers have turned to a new mapping method that takes advantage of data from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. Using WISE, the research team has discovered more than 400 dust-shrouded nurseries of stars, which trace the shape of our galaxy's spiral arms. Seven of these "embedded star clusters" are described in a new study published online May 20 in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Image above: (Annotated) This artist's concept depicts the most up-to-date information about the shape of our own Milky Way galaxy. We live around a star, our sun, located about two-thirds of the way out from the center. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (SSC/Caltech).

"The sun's location within the dust-obscured galactic disk is a complicating factor to observe the galactic structure," said Denilso Camargo, lead author of the paper from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil.

The results support the four-arm model of our galaxy's spiral structure. For the last few years, various methods of charting the Milky Way have largely led to a picture of four spiral arms. The arms are where most stars in the galaxy are born. They are stuffed with gas and dust, the ingredients of stars. Two of the arms, called Perseus and Scutum-Centaurus, seem to be more prominent and jam-packed with stars, while the Sagittarius and Outer arms have as much gas as the other two arms but not as many stars.

The new WISE study finds embedded star clusters in the Perseus, Sagittarius, and Outer arms. Data from the Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS), a ground-based predecessor of WISE from NASA, the National Science Foundation and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, helped narrow down the distances to the clusters and pinpoint their location.

Embedded star clusters are a powerful tool for visualizing the whereabouts of spiral arms because the clusters are young, and their stars haven't yet drifted away and out of the arms. Stars begin their lives in the dense, gas-rich neighborhoods of spiral arms, but they migrate away over time. These embedded star clusters complement other techniques for mapping our galaxy, such as those used by radio telescopes, which detect the dense gas clouds in spiral arms.

Image above: Astronomers using data from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, are helping to trace the shape of our Milky Way galaxy's spiral arms. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul.

"Spiral arms are like traffic jams in that the gas and stars crowd together and move more slowly in the arms. As material passes through the dense spiral arms, it is compressed and this triggers more star formation," said Camargo.

WISE is ideal for finding the embedded star clusters because its infrared vision can cut through the dust that fills the galaxy and shrouds the clusters. What's more, WISE scanned the whole sky, so it was able to perform a thorough survey of the shape of our Milky Way. NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope also uses infrared images to map the Milky Way's territory. Spitzer looks along specific lines of sight and counts stars. The spiral arms will have the densest star populations.

NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. Image Credit: NASA

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California managed and operated WISE for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The spacecraft was put into hibernation mode in 2011, after it scanned the entire sky twice, thereby completing its main objectives. In September 2013, WISE was reactivated, renamed NEOWISE and assigned a new mission to assist NASA's efforts to identify potentially hazardous near-Earth objects.

Other authors of the study are: Charles Bonatto and Eduardo Bica, also with the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul.

For more information on WISE, visit:

Previous research from Camargo's team found two embedded clusters far outside the plane of our Milky Way, 16,000 light-years away. A feature story about that work is online at:

The new WISE study from the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society is online at:

Images (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Felicia Chou/JPL/Whitney Clavin/Tony Greicius.

Best regards,

Historic handshake between space and Earth

ISS - International Space Station patch.

4 June 2015

ESA performed the first-ever demonstration of space-to-ground remote control with live video and force feedback today when NASA astronaut Terry Virts orbiting Earth on the International Space Station shook hands with ESA telerobotics specialist André Schiele in the Netherlands.

Terry was testing a joystick that allows astronauts in space to ‘feel’ objects from hundreds of kilometres away. The joystick is a twin of the one on Earth and moving either makes its copy move in the same way.

First handshake with space

The joystick provides feedback so both users can feel the force of the other pushing or pulling. Earlier this year, NASA astronaut Butch Wilmore was the first to test the joystick in space but without a connection.

Remote control

Landing astronauts on Mars and returning them home is a step too far for humanity at the moment, and operating rovers from Earth is difficult and tedious – it takes a command around 12 minutes to reach the planet. Instead, ESA envisages sending astronauts to orbit a planet and control robots on the surface from above.

Today’s test verified the communications network, the control technology and the software behind the connection. Each signal from Terry to André had to travel from the International Space Station to another satellite some 36 000 km above Earth, through Houston mission control in USA and across the Atlantic Ocean to ESA’s ESTEC technical centre in the Netherlands, taking up to 0.8 seconds in total both ways.

International Space Station

As the Space Station travels at 28 800 km/h, the time for each signal to reach its destination changes continuously, but the system automatically adjusts to varying time delays.

In addition to the joystick, Terry had an extra screen with realtime video from the ground and augmented reality added an arrow to indicate the direction and amount of force.

Behind today’s seemingly simple handshake is years of work for people to code the feedback, vision and communications software.

“The system worked even though the Space Station was flying over 5000 km away,” André commented. “It felt as though Terry was extending his arm down from space to shake my hand.”

André Schiele with Haptics-2 experiment

The next step is to do blind tests to distinguish between different objects made of foam to discover whether humans orbiting Earth can distinguish object stiffness remotely. This is important for more advanced remote robotic tasks in the future.

Space for ground

The system’s adaptability and robust design means it can be used over normal data cell-phone networks. This makes it well suited for remote areas that are difficult to access or when disasters have destroyed other communication networks.

Haptics-2 experiment

The direct and sensitive feedback coupled with safeguards against excessive forces would allow rovers and robots to carry out delicate operations in the extreme conditions found in offshore drilling and nuclear reactors, for example. It could even help to provide humanitarian aid after earthquakes or other natural disasters.

A follow-up experiment is planned for September to control a more advanced robot on the ground.

Related links:

Telerobotics and Haptics Laboratory:

Telerobotics flight experiments:

ESA Bulletin article on Meteron:

ESA Human Spaceflight:

Images, Text, Credits: ESA/J. Harrod/M. Aiple CC BY SA IGO 3.0/NASA.


mercredi 3 juin 2015

Mars Missions to Pause Commanding in June, Due to Sun

NASA patch.

June 3, 2015

In June 2015, Mars will swing almost directly behind the sun from Earth's perspective, and this celestial geometry will lead to diminished communications with spacecraft at Mars.

The arrangement of the sun between Earth and Mars is called Mars solar conjunction. It occurs about every 26 months as the two planets travel in their sun-centered orbits. The sun disrupts radio communications between the planets during the conjunction period. To prevent spacecraft at Mars from receiving garbled commands that could be misinterpreted or even harmful, the operators of Mars orbiters and rovers temporarily stop sending any commands.

The teams running NASA's three active Mars orbiters and two Mars rovers will refrain from sending commands to their spacecraft from about June 7 to June 21. During that period, the sun will be within two degrees of Mars in Earth's sky. (Don't try to look, though, because looking at the sun is dangerous to the eyes.) The operators also will put restrictions on commanding -- such as using only reduced data rates or communicating only in an emergency -- during the days before and after that period.

Image above: This diagram illustrates the positions of Mars, Earth and the sun during a period that occurs approximately every 26 months, when Mars passes almost directly behind the sun from Earth's perspective. This arrangement, and the period during which it occurs, is called Mars solar conjunction. Radio transmissions between the two planets during conjunction are at risk of being corrupted by the sun's interference, so NASA Mars missions have a moratorium on sending commands to spacecraft on the surface of Mars or in orbit around Mars. Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Spacecraft will continue making some science observations during the conjunction period, though rovers will not do any driving or arm movements.

"Our overall approach is based on what we did for the solar conjunction two years ago, which worked well," said Nagin Cox, a systems engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, who is leading conjunction planning for NASA's Curiosity Mars rover. "It is really helpful to have been through this before."

NASA's MAVEN spacecraft, which arrived in Mars orbit last September, will be experiencing its first solar conjunction. Its team has prepared thoroughly. MAVEN -- short for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution -- will continue monitoring the solar wind reaching Mars and making other measurements. "The data will be stored and transmitted back to us after communications are reestablished at the end of the solar conjunction period," said James Morrissey, MAVEN deputy project manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland.

Transmissions from NASA's two other Mars orbiters -- Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter -- will continue through the conjunction period, but some of those transmissions are not expected to reach Earth. Science data transmitted during conjunction will also remain stored aboard the orbiters, for reliable retransmission in late June. The active Mars rovers -- Curiosity and Opportunity -- will send limited data to orbiters throughout conjunction for relay to Earth during and after conjunction.

Mars Odyssey, which reached Mars in 2001, will be in its seventh solar conjunction. For Opportunity and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the 2015 solar conjunction is the sixth and fifth, respectively.

In preparation for conjunction, orbiter and Curiosity mission teams have been clearing some science data from spacecraft memories to optimize availability of memory for storing science data during the conjunction period. Data that Opportunity collects and sends daily to orbiters will be kept on the orbiters for replay after conjunction. No conjunction-period data from Opportunity will be kept on the rover. Opportunity will operate during conjunction in a mode avoiding use of non-volatile flash memory, the type of memory that can retain data when the rover powers down overnight.

A video showing Mars solar conjunction geometry is at:

NASA's five current missions at Mars are preparing the way for human-crewed missions there in the 2030s and later, in NASA's Journey to Mars strategy.

Editor Note:

Any space agencies are concerned by this solar occultation of Mars, the European Space Agency's with Mars Express and ISRO with its Mars Orbiter.

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center manages the MAVEN project for the principal investigator at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Odyssey, Reconnaissance Orbiter, Opportunity and Curiosity projects, and NASA's Mars Exploration Program, for the Science Mission Directorate. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, built all three NASA Mars orbiters. For more about NASA's Mars Exploration Program, visit: and

Image (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/JPL/Guy Webster/Tony Greicius.


Hubble observes chaotic dance of Pluto’s moons

ESA - Hubble Space Telescope logo.

3 June 2015

The chaotic spin of Pluto’s moon Nix

In a new study, scientists have gathered all available NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope data on the four outer moons of Pluto to analyse the system in more depth than ever before. The observations show that at least two of Pluto’s moons are not neatly rotating on their axes but are in chaotic rotation while orbiting around Pluto and its companion Charon. The study also hints that one of the moons has a mysterious jet-black colouring. These surprising results appear in the 4 June issue of the journal Nature.

Almost every moon in the Solar System, including our Moon, rotates on its axis at the same speed as it orbits its parent body. It is for this reason that we always see the same side of the Moon facing us on Earth. On Pluto, however, astronomers have now discovered that there are no hidden sides to its moons.

In a surprising new study, it has been found that two of Pluto’s moons, Nix and Hydra, are in a chaotic rotation. This means that an observer on Pluto would not see the same face of the moons from one night to the next. For visitors on the moons themselves, things would get even more confusing, as every day would be a different length to the one that preceded it.

The other two moons studied, Kerberos and Styx, will likely be found to be chaotic too, pending further study.

“Prior to the Hubble observations, nobody appreciated the intricate dynamics of the Pluto system,” explains Mark Showalter of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute in California, USA, main author of the study.

Pluto’s moons

The chaotic motion of the moons is caused by the system’s two central bodies, Pluto and Charon [1]. “These two bodies whirl around each other rapidly, causing the gravitational forces that they exert on the small nearby moons to change constantly,” explains Doug Hamilton, co-author of the study. “Being subject to such varying gravitational forces makes the rotation of Pluto’s moons very unpredictable. The chaos in their rotation is further accentuated by the fact that these moons are not neat and round, but are actually shaped like rugby balls!”

The movement of the moons in the Pluto–Charon system offers valuable insights into how planets orbiting a double star might behave. “We are learning that chaos may be a common trait of binary systems,” Hamilton continues. “It might even have consequences for life on planets orbiting binary stars.”

Clues to the Pluto system chaos first came when astronomers measured variations in the light reflected off of the two small moons. Looking at images taken by Hubble between 2005 and 2012, the brightness was found to change unpredictably — instead of following a regular cycle — in a way that could only be explained by chaotic movement.

These images also showed that the moon Kerberos is charcoal-black in colour, a stark contrast to the bright white of the other moons. It was predicted that pollution from dust blasted off the satellites by meteorite impacts would coat the moons, giving their surfaces a homogenous look, but why Kerberos is black is a mystery.

Animation of the chaotic spin of Pluto’s moon Nix

The chaotic rotation of the moons was not the only surprise that arose from the study; Hubble’s monitoring also revealed a connection between the orbits of the three moons Nix, Styx, and Hydra.

“Their motion is tied together in a way similar to that of three of Jupiter’s large moons,” noted Doug Hamilton of the University of Maryland, co-author of the study. “If you were sitting on Nix, you would see Styx go around Pluto twice every time Hydra goes around three times.”

The chaotic movements found in this fascinating system do not necessarily mean that it is on the brink of flying apart. More studies are needed to determine the long-term fate of the Pluto system.

The researchers agree that a combination of monitoring data from Hubble, a close-up look from NASA’s New Horizons space probe, which flies by the system in July 2015 [2], and, eventually, observations with the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope will help to settle some of the many mysteries of the Pluto–Charon system.

“Pluto will continue to surprise us when New Horizons flies past it in July,” Showalter said. “Our work with Hubble just gives us a foretaste of what’s in store.”

Hubble in orbit


[1] Due to Charon’s large size, Pluto and Charon orbit about a common centre of gravity that is located in the space between the bodies. Our moon has one eightieth of Earth’s mass, whereas Charon has one eighth of Pluto’s mass.

[2] NASA’s New Horizons space probe was launched in 2006 to study Pluto, its moons, and other Kuiper belt objects. It will fly past the Pluto-Charon system on 14 July 2015 and will produce detailed surface maps of Pluto and all of its moons.

Notes for editors:

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between ESA and NASA.

The team of astronomers in this study consists of Mark R. Showalter (SETI Institute, USA) and Doug Hamilton (University of Maryland, USA)

Pluto’s moons are hypothesised to have formed by a collision between the dwarf planet and another similar-sized body early in the history of the solar system. The smashup flung material that coalesced into the family of satellites observed around Pluto today. Pluto’s large binary companion, Charon, was discovered in 1978. The object is almost half the size of Pluto. Hubble discovered Nix and Hydra in 2005, Kerberos in 2011, and Styx in 2012. These little moons, measuring just tens of miles across, were found as part of several Hubble searches for moons and rings to characterize the system in preparation for the New Horizons spacecraft flyby.


Images of Hubble:

Link to hubblesite release:

Link to science paper:

Images, Video, Text, Credits: NASA, ESA, M. Showalter (SETI Inst.), G. Bacon/A. Field (STScI).

Best regards,

mardi 2 juin 2015

Cassini Sends Final Close Views of Odd Moon Hyperion

NASA - Cassini International logo.

June 2, 2015

Image above: NASA's Cassini imaging scientists processed this view of Saturn's moon Hyperion, taken during a close flyby on May 31, 2015. Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has returned images from its final close approach to Saturn's oddball moon Hyperion, upholding the moon's reputation as one of the most bizarre objects in the solar system. The views show Hyperion's deeply impact-scarred surface, with many craters displaying dark material on their floors.

Raw, unprocessed images from the May 31 flyby are available via the Cassini mission website at:

A selection of some of the images is also available from the Cassini imaging team's website at:

During this flyby, Cassini passed Hyperion at a distance of about 21,000 miles (34,000 kilometers) at closest approach. Cassini's closest-ever Hyperion flyby took place on Sept. 26, 2005, at a distance of 314 miles (505 kilometers).

Hyperion is the largest of Saturn’s irregular, or potato-shaped, moons and may be the remnant of a violent collision that shattered a larger object into pieces. Cassini scientists attribute Hyperion's peculiar, sponge-like appearance to the fact that it has an unusually low density for such a large object -- about half that of water. Its low density indicates Hyperion is quite porous, with weak surface gravity. These characteristics mean impactors tend to compress the surface, rather than excavating it, and most material that is blown off the surface never returns.

Image above: NASA's Cassini imaging scientists processed this view of Saturn's moon Hyperion, taken during a close flyby on May 31, 2015. Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

Cassini will make several more close flybys of Saturn's moons this year before departing the planet's equatorial plane to begin a year-long setup of the mission's daring final act. For its grand finale, set for 2017, Cassini will repeatedly dive through the space between Saturn and its rings.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, manages the mission for the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Cassini imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado. The California Institute of Technology in Pasadena manages JPL for NASA.

For more information about Cassini, visit: and and

Images (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/JPL/Preston Dyches/Tony Greicius.


Ultraviolet study reveals surprises in comet coma

ESA - Rosetta Mission patch.

2 June 2015

Rosetta’s continued close study of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko has revealed an unexpected process at work, causing the rapid breakup of water and carbon dioxide molecules spewing from the comet’s surface.

ESA’s Rosetta mission arrived at the comet in August last year. Since then, it has been orbiting or flying past the comet at distances from as far as several hundred kilometres down to as little as 8 km. While doing so, it has been collecting data on every aspect of the comet’s environment with its suite of 11 science instruments.

Rosetta uncovers processes at work in comet’s coma

One instrument, the Alice spectrograph provided by NASA, has been examining the chemical composition of the comet’s atmosphere, or coma, at far-ultraviolet wavelengths.

At these wavelengths, Alice allows scientists to detect some of the most abundant elements in the Universe such as hydrogen, oxygen, carbon and nitrogen.  The spectrograph splits the comet’s light into its various colours – its spectrum – from which scientists can identify the chemical composition of the coma gases.

In a paper accepted for publication in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics, scientists report the detections made by Alice from Rosetta’s first four months at the comet, when the spacecraft was between 10 km and 80 km from the centre of the comet nucleus.

For this study, the team focused on the nature of ‘plumes’ of water and carbon dioxide gas erupting from the comet’s surface, triggered by the warmth of the Sun. To do so, they looked at the emission from hydrogen and oxygen atoms resulting from broken water molecules, and similarly carbon atoms from carbon dioxide molecules, close to the comet nucleus.

They discovered that the molecules seem to be broken up in a two-step process.

First, an ultraviolet photon from the Sun hits a water molecule in the comet’s coma and ionises it, knocking out an energetic electron. This electron then hits another water molecule in the coma, breaking it apart into two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen, and energising them in the process. These atoms then emit ultraviolet light that is detected at characteristic wavelengths by Alice.

Rosetta’s continued close study of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko has revealed an unexpected process at work, causing the rapid breakup of water and carbon dioxide molecules spewing from the comet’s surface.

ESA’s Rosetta mission arrived at the comet in August last year. Since then, it has been orbiting or flying past the comet at distances from as far as several hundred kilometres down to as little as 8 km. While doing so, it has been collecting data on every aspect of the comet’s environment with its suite of 11 science instruments.

One instrument, the Alice spectrograph provided by NASA, has been examining the chemical composition of the comet’s atmosphere, or coma, at far-ultraviolet wavelengths.

At these wavelengths, Alice allows scientists to detect some of the most abundant elements in the Universe such as hydrogen, oxygen, carbon and nitrogen.  The spectrograph splits the comet’s light into its various colours – its spectrum – from which scientists can identify the chemical composition of the coma gases.

Rosetta’s imaging and spectroscopy instruments

Similarly, it is the impact of an electron with a carbon dioxide molecule that results in its break-up into atoms and the observed carbon emissions.

“Analysis of the relative intensities of observed atomic emissions allows us to determine that we are directly observing the ‘parent’ molecules that are being broken up by electrons in the immediate vicinity, about 1 km, of the comet’s nucleus where they are being produced,” says Paul Feldman, professor of physics and astronomy at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and lead author of the paper discussing the results.

By comparison, from Earth or from Earth-orbiting space observatories such as the Hubble Space Telescope, the atomic constituents of comets can only be seen after their parent molecules, such as water and carbon dioxide, have been broken up by sunlight, hundreds to thousands of kilometres away from the nucleus of the comet.

“The discovery we’re reporting is quite unexpected,” says Alice Principal Investigator Alan Stern, an associate vice president in the Space Science and Engineering Division of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI).

“It shows us the value of going to comets to observe them up close, since this discovery simply could not have been made from Earth or Earth orbit with any existing or planned observatory. And, it is fundamentally transforming our knowledge of comets.”

“By looking at the emission from hydrogen and oxygen atoms broken from the water molecules, we also can actually trace the location and structure of water plumes from the surface of the comet,” adds co-author Joel Parker, an assistant director in SwRI’s Space Science and Engineering Division in Boulder, Colorado.

Comet on 20 May 2015 – NavCam

The team likens the break-up of the molecules to the process that has been proposed for the plumes on Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, except that the electrons at the comet are produced by solar photons, while the electrons at Europa come from Jupiter’s magnetosphere.

The results from Alice are supported by data obtained by other Rosetta instruments, in particular MIRO, ROSINA and VIRTIS, which are able to study the abundance of different coma constituents and their variation over time, and particle detecting instruments like RPC-IES.

“These early results from Alice demonstrate how important it is to study a comet at different wavelengths and with different techniques, in order to probe various aspects of the comet environment,” says ESA’s Rosetta project scientist Matt Taylor.

“We’re actively watching how the comet evolves as it moves closer to the Sun along its orbit towards perihelion in August, seeing how the plumes become more active due to solar heating, and studying the effects of the comet’s interaction with the solar wind.”

More information:

“Measurements of the near-nucleus coma of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko with the Alice far-ultraviolet spectrograph on Rosetta,” by P Feldman et al is accepted for publication in Astronomy and Astrophysics.

About Rosetta:

Rosetta is an ESA mission with contributions from its Member States and NASA. Rosetta’s Philae lander was provided by a consortium led by DLR, MPS, CNES and ASI. Rosetta is the first mission in history to rendezvous with a comet. It is escorting the comet as they orbit the Sun together. Philae landed on the comet on 12 November 2014. Comets are time capsules containing primitive material left over from the epoch when the Sun and its planets formed. By studying the gas, dust and structure of the nucleus and organic materials associated with the comet, via both remote and in situ observations, the Rosetta mission should become the key to unlocking the history and evolution of our Solar System.

Related links:

Rosetta at Astrium:

Rosetta at DLR:

Ground-based comet observation campaign:

More about...

Rosetta overview:

Rosetta factsheet:

Frequently asked questions:

For more information about Rosetta missio, visit:

Images Credits: Spacecraft: ESA/ATG medialab; Comet, left: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA; comet, top right: ESA/Rosetta/NavCam – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0; data: Feldman et al (2015). Video, Text, Credit: European Space Agency (ESA).

Best regards,

ESA heading towards removing space debris

ESA - Clean Space Programme logo.

2 June 2015

ESA’s goal of removing a derelict satellite from orbit is picking up pace, as a mission design is assembled to be put before European ministers next year for approval.

The e.Deorbit mission came through ESA’s Clean Space initiative, tasked with reducing the environmental impact of the space industry in both the terrestrial and orbital realms.

Space debris removal mission

Space debris levels are increasing relentlessly, as colliding objects bequeath more debris and further collisions. Conserving the heavily trafficked and valuable low orbits calls for removing the large objects at a high risk of collision.

e.Deorbit would target an ESA derelict in this region, capture it, then safely burn up both the satellite and itself through a controlled atmospheric reentry. 

Having proved this approach, multiple missions per year could be flown – and e.Deorbit is being designed with recurring flights in mind.

In space industry parlance, e.Deorbit has completed its ‘Phase-A’ preliminary analysis that began in January 2014. With many aspects already finalised, it is now moving on to ‘Phase-B1’.

The aim now is to bring e.Deorbit to a point where it is essentially ready to build if ESA’s Council of Ministers in December 2016 gives its assent for launch in 2021.

Distribution of debris

Several studies in ESA’s Concurrent Design Facility have already defined aspects of the mission, which would adapt a Vega rocket upper stage as a platform for its capture system.

The proposal to harpoon its target has been dismissed as too difficult for the time being, in favour of alternative capture options such as robotic arms or nets. The initial prospect of taking debris into higher, quieter orbits has also been ruled out in favour of downward deorbiting.

“I am very pleased with the progress we are making,” said Robin Biesbroek, managing the effort. “In this phase we will really go into detail on the concept of operations, e.Deorbit’s subsystems design, and especially the capture and deorbit phases.

Concurrent Design Facility

“Extensive simulations will be done not only for standard cases, but also for off-nominal cases.”

The work to come will define the mission’s technical specifications around various goals, the most important of which is to minimise the danger to people on the ground, down to less than one in 10 000.

e Deorbit’s next milestone will be its ‘systems requirements review’, due in May–June 2016.

Related links:

How to catch a satellite:

Technologies for space debris remediation:

Readying ESA's 'garbage truck': Robin Biesbroek interview:

About Clean Space:

What is Clean Space?:

Why is it needed?:

What are its objectives?:

Q & A on Clean Space:

Images, Text, Credits: ESA/Guus Schoonewille.


lundi 1 juin 2015

50th Anniversary of EVAs in human spaceflight

NASA - 50th Anniversary of EVAs in human spaceflight logo.

June 1, 2015

Gemini IV -- Learning to Walk in Space

Image above: Astronaut Ed White floats in the microgravity of space outside the Gemini IV spacecraft. Behind him is the brilliant blue Earth and its white cloud cover. White is wearing a specially-designed space suit. The visor of the helmet is gold plated to protect him against the unfiltered rays of the sun. In his left hand is a Hand-Held Self-Maneuvering Unit with which he controls his movements in space. Image Credits: NASA/Jim McDivitt.

Building on the success of the first piloted Gemini mission, NASA prepared to launch its most ambitions flight to date – Gemini IV. During June 1965, two astronauts would not only stay in orbit four days, one would attempt America's first spacewalk. It was another example of advancing technology enabling new avenues of exploration.

Since the Soviet Union launched the world's first satellite, Sputnik 1, in Oct. 4, 1957, the United States had been attempting to catch up in the space race. The Russians passed the Americans again on March 18, 1965, when cosmonaut Alexei Leonov performed the first spacewalk during the one-day Voskhod 2 mission. However, with Gemini IV, NASA was quickly catching up.

Image above: Gemini IV astronauts Ed White, left, and Jim McDivitt, pose at Cape Kennedy's Launch Pad 19 on June 1, 1965. Image Credits: NASA.

Air Force pilots Jim McDivitt and Ed White were selected as the crew for the upcoming flight. Like John Young on Gemini III, they were members of the agency's second group of astronauts. McDivitt went on to command Apollo 9, the first piloted test of the lunar module, and he later became manager of Lunar Landing Operations and Apollo Spacecraft Program manager.

During Gemini IV, White would become the first American to venture outside his spacecraft for what is officially known as an extravehicular activity, or EVA. The world has come to know it as a spacewalk. In the following years, it was a skill that allowed Apollo explorers to walk on the moon and American astronauts and their partners from around the world to build the International Space Station.

EVA is an example of NASA's sustained investments to mature capabilities required to reach challenging destinations such as an asteroid, Mars and other planets. Agency administrator Charlie Bolden spoke of the 50th anniversary of Gemini IV and how its legacy remains a crucial part of spaceflight today.

Image above: An overall view of Mission Control at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston during the early hours of the Gemini IV flight. In 1973, the center was renamed in honor of the late U.S. president and Texas native, Lyndon B. Johnson. Image Credits: NASA.

"This year we celebrate 50 years since Edward White left his Gemini capsule to become America’s first spacewalker," said Bolden speaking in his "State of NASA" address at the Kennedy Space Center on Feb. 2. "It was only a few years later that we landed humans on the moon."

Four days of Gemini IV would not only come close to the Russian record, but almost double NASA astronauts' previous time in space.

Before June 1965, the longest American spaceflight was Gordon Cooper's 34 hours in space during May 1963 aboard Mercury 9. Soviet cosmonaut Valery Bykovsky spent five days in orbit a month later aboard Vostok 5.

Lifting off from Launch Pad 19 at Cape Kennedy (now Cape Canaveral) Air Force Station on June 3, 1965, Gemini 4 was the first flight to be followed by the mission control at the new Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) in Houston. MSC grew out of the Space Task Group formed soon after the creation of NASA and originally located at the Langley Research Center in Virginia. Beginning with Project Mercury, that complex was the center of U.S. human spaceflight training and management through Gemini III.

Image above: "This is the greatest experience, it's just tremendous," said astronaut Ed White as he spacewalks outside the Gemini IV spacecraft on June 3, 1965. On his chest is an emergency oxygen pack. He is secured to the spacecraft by a 25-foot umbilical line and tether wrapped in gold tape. Image Credits: NASA/Jim McDivitt.

The 1,620-acre MSC complex became the primary flight control center for all subsequent U.S. manned space missions from Project Gemini forward. On Feb. 19, 1973, the center was renamed in honor of the late U.S. president and Texas native, Lyndon B. Johnson.

The new setup also required Julian Scheer, NASA's assistant administrator for Public Affairs, to develop a new approach to how the agency reported mission progress to the world. The original plan was to have MSC Public Affairs Director Paul Haney do both the launch and mission commentary from Houston, just like he did for Gemini III. For all previous Mercury and Gemini missions the control center was at the Cape Kennedy launch site.

Scheer directed that Jack King, NASA's first chief of Public Information at the Florida spaceport, would do the countdown commentary from the Pad 19 blockhouse at the Cape with Haney taking over from Houston at liftoff. This set the precedent for all future human spaceflights with the exception that, beginning with Apollo, the commentary hand-off would be at the point when the rocket cleared the launch tower.

Image above: Gemini IV astronauts Ed White, left, and Jim McDivitt talk to officials on the USS Wasp recovery aircraft carrier on June 7, 1965. Image Credits: NASA.

Once in orbit, the first order of business was an attempt to rendezvous with the Titan II booster rocket's second stage. It proved more difficult than originally thought. There were only two running lights on the stage, and there was no radar on board to give a precise range to the target. McDivitt then decided to concentrate on the more important EVA objective.

While flying over the tracking station in Hawaii, White pulled the handle to open his hatch.

"Okay, I'm out," said White. He floated outside the capsule attached by an umbilical cord tether providing oxygen and communications from the spacecraft.

"You look beautiful, Ed," said McDivitt as he began taking pictures of White tumbling around outside his window.

"I feel like a million dollars," White said.

As White floated outside Gemini IV, he used a Hand-Held Maneuvering Unit, informally called a "zip gun." The device expelled pressurized oxygen to provide thrust for controlling his movements outside the capsule.

"The gun works great, Jim," White said to his command pilot. "It's very easy to maneuver with the gun. The only problem I have is that I haven't got enough fuel. I was able to maneuver myself around the front of the spacecraft and maneuver right up to the top of the adapter, and came back into Jim's view."

Image above: Experience during spacewalks in orbit around the Earth, proved valuable in preparing for lunar extravehicular activities, better known as moonwalks. On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin deploys the Passive Seismic Experiment Package in the Sea of Tranquility. Image Credits: NASA/Neil Armstrong.

McDivitt and White also had time for some sightseeing, reporting back to capsule communicator Gus Grissom in mission control.

"Hey, Gus, we're right over Houston," said White. "We're looking right down on Galveston Bay."

At the end of the 20-minute spacewalk, White was exuberant.

"This is the greatest experience," he said. "It's just tremendous."

During the remainder of the four-day mission, McDivitt and White conducted 11 scientific experiments. One investigation involved spacecraft navigation using a sextant to measure their position using the stars. The objective was to investigate the feasibility of using this technique for lunar flights on the Apollo program.

Another focused on photography with a 70-millimeter Hasselblad camera taking images of the weather and terrain on Earth. From the agency's earliest efforts, NASA has been an innovative leader in studies of Earth science.

Re-entry took place June 7, 1965, on the 62nd orbit, with the spacecraft landing 43 miles short of the intended landing target, about 390 miles east of Cape Kennedy. The crew of a helicopter from the aircraft carrier USS Wasp was able to see them land.

Minutes after pickup, McDivitt and White stepped off the helicopter onto the deck of the recovery ship, receiving a tremendous ovation from the sailors on the deck of the Wasp.

Following the recovery of Gemini IV, Dr. George Mueller, NASA's associate administrator for Manned Space Flight, had high praise for those supporting the mission.

Image above: Backdropped by the islands of New Zealand, astronaut Robert Curbeam Jr., left, and European Space Agency astronaut Christer Fuglesang of Sweden, participate in an STS-116 spacewalk on Dec. 12, 2006. The extravehicular activities in support of construction of the International Space Station were crucial in assembly of elements such as the truss segment delivered by the space shuttle Discovery. Image Credits: NASA.

"I would like to congratulate the launch crew and the launch vehicle and spacecraft checkout crew for doing a splendid job," he said. "I particularly want to say the support for the range, for the spacecraft and for the launch vehicle were tremendous."

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second in a series of feature articles marking the 50th anniversary of Project Gemini. During 1965 and 1966, NASA developed many innovative solutions that dramatically advanced the agency’s capabilities for living and working in space. In August, read about Gemini V and developing the technology for long-term spaceflight.

Suit Up - 50 Years of Spacewalks

Video above: This NASA documentary celebrates 50 years of extravehicular activity (EVA) or spacewalks that began with the first two EVAs conducted by Russian Alexey Leonov in March 1965 and American astronaut Edward White in June 1965 . The documentary features interviews with NASA Administrator and astronaut, Charles Bolden, NASA Deputy Administrator and spacesuit designer, Dava Newman, as well as other astronauts, engineers, technicians, managers and luminaries of spacewalk history. They share their personal stories and thoughts that cover the full EVA experience-- from the early spacewalking experiences, to spacesuit manufacturing, to modern day spacewalks aboard the International Space Station as well as what the future holds for humans working on a tether in space. "Suit Up," is narrated by actor and fan of space exploration Jon Cryer. Cryer recently traveled to Star City, NASA Headquarters and the Johnson Space Center to film an upcoming Travel Channel documentary series.

As 2015 marks the 50th Anniversary of EVAs in human spaceflight, this NASA video at reviews the history of spacewalks and looks ahead to exploration of Mars. Check out a Website at also dedicated to interesting facts and information about the history of spacewalking as it relates to current capabilities and development efforts for exploration.

Images (mentioned), Video, Text, Credits: NASA/Bob Granath.

Best regards,

NASA's Exploration Plans Include Living Off the Land

NASA logo.

June 1, 2015

When early explorers crossed vast oceans to reach new worlds, they traveled with only what they needed to get there. After arriving at their destination, the pioneers planned to live off the land. NASA engineers and scientists now are developing capabilities needed once astronauts reach destinations such as an asteroid, the moon or Mars.

At NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, researchers are studying how to best practice in-situ resource utilization (ISRU), that is, harvesting and relying on available raw materials as astronauts visit deep-space destinations.

Image above: A close-up view of Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong's boot and boot print in the lunar soil, showing the makeup of regolith on the moon. Basalt in the soft, powdery soil could be useful in building structures on the lunar surface. Image Credits: NASA/ Neil Armstrong.

Josephine Burnett, director of Kennedy's new Exploration Research and Technology Programs organization, points out the significance of creating new capabilities.

"Pioneering space will require several game changing technologies, some of which are being developed here at Kennedy," said Burnett. "These new technological capabilities will enable NASA to become less dependent on Earth-based logistics and instead use local resources to maintain a sustained human presence in space."

According to Jack Fox, chief of the Science and Technology Projects Division of the Exploration Research and Technology Programs Directorate at Kennedy, ISRU could reduce the weight of an outfitted exploration spacecraft by 40 percent.

"The purpose of our in-situ resource utilization research is to harness these resources," he said. "When the early settlers came to North America, they brought only ax heads. They knew they could make ax handles from trees they would find when they reached their destination. We believe learning to live off available resources will significantly reduce the mass, cost and risk of near and long-term space exploration."

Fox explained that resources such as water ice, metals and regolith will be available in great supplies whether planning to work on the moon, Mars or other destinations.

Regolith is a layer of loose material covering solid rock. It includes dust, soil, broken rock, and other related materials and is present on Earth, the moon, some asteroids and Mars.

Image above: Engineers make adjustments to the second generation Regolith Advanced Surface Systems Operations Robot prior to a test at the Kennedy Space Center's Swamp Works. As a resource, regolith shows promise for construction due to the extensive presence of basalt in the surface soil. The mineral is widespread among all igneous rocks and comprises more than 90 percent of all volcanic material and it is commonly found on both the moon and Mars. Image Credits: NASA.

One resource that is key to numerous applications is water.

"Several recent planetary missions have sent back data that points to lunar water representing a significant resource that could be used by future explorers," Fox said.

The Clementine mission, launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in 1994, conducted a bistatic radar experiment that showed water might exist in the Shackelton crater near the lunar south pole.

 Artist's concept of the Clementine spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA
Officially called the Deep Space Program Science Experiment, the objective of the Clementine mission was to test sensors and spacecraft components under extended exposure to the space environment and to make scientific observations of the moon and an asteroid.

Launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in 1998, the Lunar Prospector mission detected elevated amounts of hydrogen in both of the moon's polar regions, but could not distinguish its chemical form. Other data returned during the mission also helped scientists construct a detailed map of the lunar surface composition.

NASA's mini-RF and M3 instruments on the Indian Space Research Organization's Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter provided more information on the moon's water resources. Chandrayaan-1 was India's first lunar probe, launched in 2008.

 Artist's concept of Chandrayaan-1. Image Credit: ISRO

Flown from the Cape in 2009, more potential water resources were located by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) missions.

Besides the obvious benefits of water itself, it is made up of hydrogen and oxygen.

"By separating these elements, we have what it takes to operate fuel cells to create electricity," Fox said. "That gives us a power plant on a distant destination."

A fuel cell converts energy from an element, such as liquid hydrogen, into electricity through a chemical reaction with liquid oxygen or another oxidizing agent.

Such technology is under development at Kennedy. The Regolith and Environment Science and Oxygen and Lunar Volatiles Extraction (RESOLVE) payload is in development for a planned Resource Prospector probe. This ISRU-driven mission features a rover that would map lunar volatiles, drill to extract samples and process water and other volatiles.

In planetary science, volatiles are chemical elements and compounds with low boiling points that are associated with a planet or moon's crust or atmosphere.

"RESOLVE is an important first step in enabling long-duration human exploration by actually extracting water from under the lunar surface," Fox said.

Hydrogen and oxygen are the most efficient chemical rocket propellants know. Therefore, extracting these elements from local lunar resources might permit using the moon as a "gas station" for a spacecraft to explore further into the solar system. Oxygen and water, obviously represents a valuable life support commodity.

Since 1965, a fleet of robotic spacecraft have flown by, orbited and landed on Mars. Collectively, they have dramatically increased the knowledge-base about the Red Planet, helping pave the way for human pioneers.

Robotic scientific rovers now are being developed to further determine what raw materials are available and in what quantities. A prototype rover called RASSOR, for Regolith Advanced Surface System Operations Robot, has been tested at Kennedy's Swamp Works. Established to provide rapid, innovative and cost effective exploration mission solutions, Swamp Works leverages partnerships across NASA, industry and academia.

Image above: Rob Mueller, NASA senior technologist in the Surface Systems Office at the Kennedy Space Center, left, talks with former NASA Gemini and Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin during a demonstration of the Regolith Advanced Surface Systems Operations Robot, or RASSOR. The robot has been tested at Kennedy's Swamp Works. A similar spacecraft could be used to collect samples or excavate a landing pad for future landers. Image Credits: NASA/Ben Smegelsky.

"RASSOR is designed to climb over difficult terrain," Fox said. "It has wheels with scoops that pick up regolith. It could be used to collect samples or excavate a landing pad for future landers. While the first generation RASSOR has been very successful, we now are working on RASSOR 2 which will be lighter in weight and use less energy."

As a resource, regolith shows promise for construction partly due to the extensive presence of volcanic basalt in the surface soil.

"Construction materials containing basalt and a bonding agent would be two to three times stronger in compression than normal cement concrete typically used here on Earth," Fox said. "It would be an excellent raw material for construction on the moon or Mars."

Image above: In the Kennedy Space Center's Swamp Works laboratory, scientists and engineers are developing robotic concepts for building structures on the moon or Mars focusing on in-situ resource utilization, or living off the land. This robotic arm could be the basis of a system to construct basic shelters for future explorers. Image Credits: NASA/Dan Casper.

Fox noted that the strength of basalt in construction is demonstrated in second-century Roman architecture which has withstood the elements for centuries.

"We recently teamed with researchers at the Marshall Space Flight Center and the U.S. Army to study how to use regolith to build structures to support exploration of Mars," he said.

Planetary surface construction and mining tasks that may be possible using planetary regolith include launch and landing pads, equipment shelters, regolith mining for oxygen production, and water ice mining from shadowed craters.

While NASA develops ways of to use available resources at deep-space destinations, crews aboard the International Space Station (ISS) are performing human research experiments and testing advance environmental and life support systems.

The ability to grow food and recycle carbon dioxide into breathable oxygen may prove crucial for astronauts and add to the body of knowledge as they live in space for months or years at a time. A plant habitat with a large growth chamber also is being studied by Kennedy engineers to determine the affect long-duration microgravity exposure has on plants in space. Similarly, projects such as NASA's Veggie pave the way to growing and eating food in space.

 NASA's Veggie, providing food in space. Image Credits: NASA Ames Research Center

The Veggie experiment is being used aboard the ISS to study the in-orbit function and performance of a new expandable plant growth facility.

To continue research into the availability and accessibility of raw materials for human exploration of Mars, NASA is planning the Mars 2020 mission, building on the success of the Curiosity mission. Scheduled for launch in 2020, the rover mission goals include detecting and characterizing ancient environments that could have harbored life, caching samples for a future sample return mission and testing the ability to extract oxygen from the Red Planet's carbon-dioxide atmosphere to prepare for future human exploration.

The Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment (MOXIE) will test a solid oxide electrolysis technology that could be scaled up to meet human mission requirements, while the Mars Environment Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA) will improve understanding of atmospheric dust.

Image above: This artist's concepts depicts an example of a construction strategy from Contour Crafting and University of Southern California. The approach was selected by the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Project. Contour Crafting technology has potential for building safe, reliable and affordable lunar and Martian structures, habitats, laboratories and other facilities. Contour Crafting construction systems are being developed that exploit in-situ resources and can utilize regolith as construction material. Image Credits: Contour Crafting and University of Southern California.

In addition to NASA and space agencies of other nations, Fox believes there will be future commercial interest in utilization of resources on the moon or planets.

"There are so many possibilities for mining raw materials and putting resources to work, industries may find it economically useful to join this effort," he said.

Technology investments in space can create new markets, thus stimulating growth of the nation’s economy.

"We know there are solvable challenges for human missions to Mars," Fox said. "We have multiple programs in progress that will allow us to overcome the unknowns and make the best use of what we need to take along and what we'll find when we get there."

Related links:

The Regolith and Environment Science and Oxygen and Lunar Volatiles Extraction (RESOLVE):

The Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment (MOXIE):

Images (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA's Kennedy Space Center/Bob Granath.