vendredi 15 mai 2020

Japanese Cargo, SpaceX Crew Dragon Activities Ramping Up

ISS - Expedition 63 Mission patch.

May 15, 2020

International Space Station (ISS). Image Credit: NASA

The International Space Station is getting ready for a new Japanese cargo mission and the first Commercial Crew before the end of the month.

Expedition 63 Commander Chris Cassidy joined Flight Engineer Ivan Vagner Friday afternoon to train for the arrival of a Japanese cargo craft after it launches on May 20 at 1:30 p.m. EDT. The duo practiced the robotic capture techniques they will use when they command the Canadarm2 robotic arm to grapple Japan’s ninth H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV-9) when it arrives on May 25 at 8:15 a.m.

The HTV-9 is delivering over four tons of food, fuel and supplies including new lithium-ion batteries to finish updating the station’s power systems. NASA TV will broadcast the launch and capture activities live.

Image above: NASA astronauts Bob Behnken (left) and Doug Hurley participate in a fully integrated test of SpaceX Crew Dragon flight hardware at the SpaceX processing facility in Florida on March 30. Image Credit: SpaceX.

Two days after the arrival of Japan’s HTV-9 resupply ship, the first crew to launch from U.S. soil since 2011 will lift off from Florida to the orbiting lab aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon vehicle. NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are in preflight quarantine at the Kennedy Space Center counting down to their May 27 launch at 4:33 p.m.

The veteran astronauts, representing NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, will approach the station May 28 and dock to the Harmony Module’s forward-facing International Docking Adapter at 11:39 a.m. They will open the hatch about two-and-a-half hours later to join the Expedition 63 crew and ramp up space science activities.

Related article:

SpaceX Demo-2 Crew Members Enter Preflight Quarantine

Related links:

Expedition 63:


Commercial Crew Program:

Harmony Module:

Space Station Research and Technology:

International Space Station (ISS):

Images (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Mark Garcia.

Best regards,

Searching with Sasquatch: Recovering Orion

NASA - Orion Crew Vehicle patch.

May 15, 2020

For Artemis missions, NASA’s Orion spacecraft will be traveling at 25,000 mph as it reenters the Earth’s atmosphere, which will slow it down to 325 mph. Parachutes will then bring it down to about 20 mph.

During the parachute deploy sequence, hardware will be jettisoned and fall into the Pacific Ocean below while the recovery ship awaits near the landing site. Keeping the ship and recovery team safe is critical to mission success.

Image above: During Underway Recovery Test-8 in March, NASA's Landing and Recovery team from Exploration Ground Systems at Kennedy Space Center performs its first full mission profile test of the recovery procedures for Artemis I aboard the USS John P. Murtha in the Pacific Ocean. Image Credits: NASA/Kenny Allen.

The Landing and Recovery team, led by Exploration Ground Systems at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, is prepared to safely recover Orion and attempt to recover the jettisoned hardware. A four-person team of engineers from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston will also be onboard the U.S. Navy recovery ship with a “Sasquatch” — no, not an elusive hairy creature, but a very important software tool created specifically for Orion.

“Sasquatch is the software NASA uses to predict large footprints — that’s why we call it Sasquatch — of the various debris that is released from the capsule as it is reentering and coming through descent,” said Sarah Manning, a Sasquatch operator and aerospace engineer from the Engineering Directorate at Johnson.

Image Credits: Senior Airman Kyle Boyes of the U.S. Air Force’s 45th Weather Squadron out of Patrick Air Force Base in Florida releases a weather balloon during Underway Recovery Test-8 in the Pacific Ocean in March 2020. Image Credits: NASA/Amanda Griffin.

The hardware jettisoned, or released, during parachute deployment includes drogue and pilot parachutes that help initially slow and stabilize Orion, along with other elements necessary for the parachute sequence to deploy. The primary objective for the Sasquatch team is to help get the ship as close as possible to recover Orion quickly. A secondary objective is to recover as much hardware as possible.

Incorporating wind data gathered from the balloons with Sasquatch’s information about the debris, such as how quickly it falls, will show how the debris will spread based on the winds that day — scenarios the team has practiced for years in the Arizona desert where the Orion program conducted parachute testing. That’s where Sasquatch and eight weather balloons, released from the recovery ship by a team from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, come into play. They will use that information to position the recovery ship, small boats and helicopters outside the debris field to avoid injuries or damage.

“The upper-level wind speed and direction are critical in modeling the debris trajectories,” said Air Force Maj. Jeremy J. Hromsco, operations officer, 45th Weather Squadron at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. “Data provided to U.S. Navy and NASA forecast teams will allow them to accurately characterize and forecast the atmosphere during recovery operations.”

Image above: Sarah Manning, an aerospace engineer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, is part of a team that operates “Sasquatch,” an important software tool created specifically for the agency’s Orion spacecraft. Image Credits: NASA/Amanda Griffin.

Positioning is paramount to recovering the hardware before it sinks. The team will first focus on recovering the capsule’s forward bay cover, a protective ring that covers the back shell of the capsule and protects the parachutes during most of the mission, as well as the three main parachutes. If they are successful, engineers can inspect the hardware and gather additional performance data.

About five days before splashdown, the Landing and Recovery team heads to a midway point between shore and where Orion is expected to land. As the spacecraft approaches, the Navy ship with the team continues its approach. How close they can get — and how quickly they can get to the capsule — depends on the work of the Sasquatch team.

“We have locations ready two hours before splashdown, but anything could change,” Manning said. “Then we have to make real-time decisions and people need to move.”

Orion Recovery Team

Helicopters that capture valuable imagery during descent and landing take off about an hour before splashdown. These aircraft set their flight plans based on the latest information from the Sasquatch team.

Artemis I will be an uncrewed flight test of NASA’s Orion spacecraft, Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, with the newly upgraded ground systems at Kennedy. During future Artemis missions, crew will be onboard. The recovery team intends to recover the crew and capsule within two hours of splashing down.

“Safety is absolutely very important,” Manning said. “We want to get as close as we can — far enough away that the recovery team is safe, but close enough that they can get there quickly.”

Related links:



Landing and Recovery team:

Artemis I:

Ground Systems:

Moon to Mars:

Kennedy Space Center (KSC):

Images (mentioned), Video, Text, Credits: NASA/James Cawley.


Space Station Science Highlights: Week of May 11, 2020

ISS - Expedition 63 Mission patch.

May 15, 2020

Research activities conducted aboard the International Space Station the week of May 11 included studies of fire safety in space and plant-water dynamics and several ongoing astrophysics investigations.

Now in its 20th year of continuous human presence, the space station provides a platform for long-duration research in microgravity and for learning to live and work in space. Experience gained on the orbiting lab supports Artemis, NASA’s program to go forward to the Moon and on to Mars.

Here are details on some of the microgravity investigations currently taking place:

Burning a safe distance away

Image above: The Cygnus space freighter in the grips of the Canadarm2 robotic arm moments before its release from the International Space Station, ending an 83-day stay. After departure, Cygnus deployed small satellites and hosted a fire safety investigation, Saffire-IV. Image Credit: NASA.

After the Cygnus cargo craft departed the space station on Monday, May 11, its Slingshot mechanism deployed several small satellites. Cygnus also provided a safe environment for a study of fire in microgravity, hosting operations of the Spacecraft Fire Safety Experiment – IV (Saffire-IV) after its departure. Understanding how fires spread in space is vital for developing flame-resistant materials and fire prevention measures, but it is difficult to perform flame growth and prevention experiments aboard an occupied spacecraft. Saffire-IV examines fire growth in different materials and environmental conditions and demonstrates fire detection, monitoring and post-fire cleanup capabilities.

Untended astrophysics and quantum mechanics investigations

Thanks to increasing automation and careful planning, more and more investigations aboard the space station require little or no crew involvement. Examples of such investigations currently operating include the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer - 02 (AMS-02), Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Monitor of All-sky X-ray Image (MAXI).

Image above: ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut Luca Parmitano attached to the Canadarm2 robotic arm with a new thermal pump system for the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS). This was the third of four spacewalks to upgrade the cosmic particle detector attached to the outside of the space station. Image Credit: NASA.

Scientists theorize that stars, planets and the molecules they contain represent less than five percent of the mass-energy content of the universe. The rest is dark energy and dark matter, which cannot be directly detected. AMS-02 looks for evidence of this mysterious substance by recording cosmic rays, highly energetic particles that bombard Earth from space. Originally planned as a three-year mission, AMS operated for more than 8 years before astronauts repaired and upgraded it, a process that took four spacewalks. Scientists now expect to collect data from AMS for many more years, including through a complete solar cycle. Its repairs notwithstanding, AMS typically operates autonomously, requiring only a power source from the space station.

Earlier this year, astronauts also performed major upgrades for CAL. This instrument produces clouds of atoms chilled to near absolute zero, much colder than the average temperature of deep space. This low temperature slows down atoms significantly so scientists can study fundamental behaviors and quantum characteristics that are difficult or impossible to probe at higher temperatures. CAL hardware is powered continuously, with operations conducted for 8 hours per day during crew sleep. It requires crew involvement only for installation, operation updates and, eventually, decommissioning. 

Another automated instrument, MAXI, continuously surveys X-ray sources and variabilities as the space station orbits Earth. Operating since 2009, so far MAXI has discovered new black hole candidates, reported more than 20 binary X-ray pulsar outbursts, detected X-ray flares from 12 stars and observed for the first time the instant that a massive black hole swallowed a star. The investigation also released a catalog for high Galactic-latitude sky sources and revealed the existence of a hypernova remnant estimated to be 3 million years old, likely the first in our galaxy.

Monitoring plants from space

Image above: The ECOsystem Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment on Space Station (ECOSTRESS), shown here installed onto the Japanese Experiment Module - Exposed Facility (JEM-EF), provides high-resolution thermal infrared measurements of the surface of Earth. Image Credit: NASA.

The ECOsystem Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment on Space Station (ECOSTRESS) records high space-time resolution thermal infrared measurements of the surface of Earth at varying times during daylight. These measurements could help answer several key questions about water stress in plants and how selected regions of the planet may respond to future changes in climate. ECOSTRESS collects data whenever the space station passes over a target, with start and stop times programmed weekly from the ground, without need for crew involvement. Data are compressed and stored in memory then downlinked as bandwidth is available.

Other investigations on which the crew performed work:

- Astrobee tests three self-contained, free-flying robots designed to assist astronauts with routine chores, give ground controllers additional eyes and ears and perform crew monitoring, sampling and logistics management.

- AstroPi includes two augmented Raspberry Pi computers equipped with cameras and hardware that measures the environment inside the space station, detects how the station moves through space and picks up the Earth’s magnetic field. The ESA (European Space Agency) AstroPi Challenge offers students and other young people the opportunity to conduct scientific investigations in space by writing computer programs or code for the computers.

- ISS Ham gives students an opportunity to talk directly with crew members via ham radio when the space station passes over their schools. This interaction engages and educates students, teachers, parents and other members of the community in science, technology, engineering and math.

Space to Ground: Fanning the Flames: 05/15/2020

Related links:

Expedition 63:







ISS National Lab:

Spot the Station:

Space Station Research and Technology:

International Space Station (ISS):

Images (mentioned), Video (NASA), Text, Credits: NASA/Michael Johnson/John Love, Lead Increment Scientist Expedition 63.

Best regards,

jeudi 14 mai 2020

Station Trio Checks Eyes, Keeps Lab in Tip-Top Shape

ISS - Expedition 63 Mission patch.

May 14, 2020

The Expedition 63 crew focused its attention today on maintaining International Space Station systems and keeping the orbiting lab in tip-top shape. More eye checks were also on the schedule as doctors seek to protect crew vision in microgravity.

Commander Chris Cassidy of NASA started his morning organizing science hardware inside the Columbus laboratory module from the European Space Agency (ESA). He reconfigured radiation detection gear and adjusted research racks to install stowage bags and create more space inside Columbus. Afterward, Cassidy removed an atmosphere monitor from the U.S. Destiny laboratory module then reinstalled and activated it inside the Harmony module.

Image above: The three-member Expedition 63 crew aboard the International Space Station with (from left) NASA astronaut and Commander Chris Cassidy and Roscosmos cosmonauts and Flight Engineers Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner. Image Credit: NASA.

The veteran NASA astronaut also partnered once again with experienced Flight Engineer Anatoly Ivanishin for another eye exam, this time using optical coherence tomography gear. Crew members have reported vision issues and scientists are exploring why and seek to ensure healthy eyes while living in space.

Ivanishin, who is on his third station spaceflight, spent Thursday morning servicing power systems in the Russian segment of the orbiting lab. Before wrapping up his day with eye checks, he replaced Russian thermal sensors and updated the station’s inventory management system.

Animation Credits: ISS HD Live Now/ Aerospace

First time space-flyer Ivan Vagner participated in a variety public affairs events for Russian media. He had a live event in the morning where he discussed living aboard the space station. He also recorded messages celebrating Russian space achievements to be broadcast on Earth at later date. Vagner ended his day checking out spacecraft systems inside the Progress 75 cargo craft.

Flying Robots, Ultrasound Eye Scans Top Science Schedule

lying robots and ultrasound eye scans were the top science activities aboard the International Space Station today. The Expedition 63 crew also serviced a variety of lab hardware and tested a wearable health monitor.

Free-flying robotic assistants called AstroBees were checked out as Commander Chris Cassidy once again tested their ability to autonomously navigate the orbiting lab. The veteran astronaut then shut down and docked the small cube-shaped devices inside the Kibo laboratory module from JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency).

Image above: NASA astronaut and Expedition 63 Commander Chris Cassidy sets up an Astrobee robotic assistant, one of a trio of cube-shaped, free-flying robots, for a test of its mobility and vision system inside the Kibo laboratory module. Image Credit: NASA.

Students on Earth will soon get a chance to “test-drive” the Astrobees in a competition for the best program to control the robotic devices. Researchers are also exploring the Astrobees’ potential to perform routine station duties so the crew has more time for critical science.

Cassidy also tackled more mundane tasks during the morning as he worked on space plumbing duties in the Kibo lab. The commander wiped leaking water and inspected plumbing connections in Kibo’s Water Recovery System.

International Space Station (ISS). Animation Credit: NASA

In the afternoon, Cassidy had his eyes scanned by three-time station Flight Engineer Anatoly Ivanishin using an ultrasound device. The ultrasound exam, with real-time inputs from doctors on the ground, looks at the health of the retina, cornea and optic nerve.

Ivanishin started his workday swapping fuel bottles inside the Combustion Integrated Rack which enables safe studies of fuels, flames and soot in microgravity. First-time space flyer Ivan Vagner worked during the morning on Russian power supply systems before servicing water tanks in the Zvezda service module. Just after lunchtime, Vagner attached the Holter Monitor, a non-invasive medical device, to his chest that will measure his heart’s electrical activity.

Related links:

Expedition 63:

Columbus laboratory module:

U.S. Destiny laboratory module:

Harmony module:


Kibo laboratory module:

Combustion Integrated Rack:

Zvezda service module:

Holter Monitor:

Space Station Research and Technology:

International Space Station (ISS):

Images (mentioned), Animations (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Mark Garcia.

Best regards,

Why Clouds Form Near Black Holes

NASA logo.

May 14, 2020

Once you leave the majestic skies of Earth, the word “cloud” no longer means a white fluffy-looking structure that produces rain. Instead, clouds in the greater universe are clumpy areas of greater density than their surroundings.

Image above: This illustration depicts a quasar, a type of active galactic nucleus, surrounded by a dusty donut shape (torus) and clumps called “clouds.” These clouds start small but can expand to be more than 1 parsec (3.3 light-years) wide. In this diagram, the clouds are at least 1 parsec from the torus. Image Credits: Illustration by Nima Abkenar.

Space telescopes have observed these cosmic clouds in the vicinity of supermassive black holes, those mysterious dense objects from which no light can escape, with masses equivalent to more than 100,000 Suns. There is a supermassive black hole in the center of nearly every galaxy, and it is called an “active galactic nucleus” (AGN) if it is gobbling up a lot of gas and dust from its surroundings. The brightest kind of AGN is called a "quasar." While the black hole itself cannot be seen, its vicinity shines extremely bright as matter gets torn apart close to its event horizon, its point of no return.

But black holes aren’t truly like vacuum cleaners; they don’t just suck up everything that gets too close. While some material around a black hole will fall directly in, never to be seen again, some of the nearby gas will be flung outward, creating a shell that expands over thousands of years. That’s because the area near the event horizon is extremely energetic; the high-energy radiation from fast-moving particles around the black hole can eject a significant amount of gas into the vastness of space.

Scientists would expect that this outflow of gas would be smooth. Instead, it is clumpy, extending well beyond 1 parsec (3.3 light-years) from the black hole. Each cloud starts out small, but can expand to be more than 1 parsec wide — and could even cover the distance between Earth and the nearest star beyond the Sun, Proxima Centauri.

Astrophysicist Daniel Proga at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, likens these clumps to groups of cars waiting at a highway onramp with stoplights designed to regulate the influx of new traffic. “Every now and then you have a bunch of cars,” he said.

What explains these clumps in deep space? Proga and colleagues have a new computer model that presents a possible solution to this mystery, published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, led by doctoral student Randall Dannen. Scientists show that extremely intense heat near the supermassive black hole can allow the gas to flow outward really fast, but in a way that can also lead to clump formation. If the gas accelerates too quickly, it will not cool off enough to form clumps. The computer model takes these factors into account and proposes a mechanism to make the gas travel far, but also clump.

“Near the outer edge of the shell there is a perturbation that makes gas density a little bit lower than it used to be,” Proga said. “That makes this gas heat up very efficiently. The cold gas further out is being lifted out by that.”

This phenomenon is somewhat like the buoyancy that makes hot air balloons float. The heated air inside the balloon is lighter than the cooler air outside, and this density difference makes the balloon rise.

"This work is important because astronomers have always needed to place clouds at a given location and velocity to fit the observations we see from AGN,” Dannen said. “They were not often concerned with the specifics of how the clouds formed in the first place, and our work offers a potential explanation for the formation of these clouds."

This model looks only at the shell of gas, not at the disk of material swirling around the black hole that is feeding it. The researchers’ next step is to examine whether the flow of gas originates from the disk itself. They are also interested tackling the mystery of why some clouds move extremely fast, on the order of 20 million miles per hour (10,000 kilometers per second).

This research, which addresses an important topic in the physics of active galactic nuclei, was supported with a grant from NASA. The co-authors are Dannen, Proga, UNLV postdoctoral scholar Tim Waters, and former UNLV postdoctoral scholar Sergei Dyda (now at the University of Cambridge).

Related links:

Black Holes:

Astrophysical Journal Letters:

Image (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Tricia Talbert/Elizabeth Landau.


Magnetic north and the elongating blob

ESA - SWARM Mission logo.

May 14, 2020

For some years now, scientists have been puzzling over why the north magnetic pole has been making a dash towards Siberia. Thanks, in part, to ESA’s Swarm satellite mission, scientists are now more confident in the theory that tussling magnetic blobs deep below Earth’s surface are at the root of this phenomenon.

Swirling iron

Unlike our geographic north pole, which is in a fixed location, magnetic north wanders. This has been known since it was first measured in 1831, and subsequently mapped drifting slowly from the Canadian Arctic towards Siberia.

Magnetic North Pole 1840–2019

However, since the 1990s, this drift has turned into more of a sprint – going from its historic wandering of 0–15 km a year to its present speed of 50–60 km a year. This shift in pace has meant that the World Magnetic Model has had to be updated more frequently, which is vital for navigation on smart phones, for example.

Our magnetic field exists because of an ocean of superheated, swirling liquid iron that makes up the outer core. Like a spinning conductor in a bicycle dynamo, this moving iron creates electrical currents, which in turn generate our continuously changing magnetic field.


Numerical models based on measurements from space, including from ESA’s Swarm mission, have allowed scientists to construct global maps of the magnetic field. Tracking changes in the magnetic field can tell researchers how the iron in the core moves.

The force that protects our planet

During ESA’s Living Planet Symposium last year, scientists from the University of Leeds in the UK reported that these satellite data showed that the position of the north magnetic pole is determined largely by a balance, or tug-of-war, between two large lobes of negative flux at the boundary between Earth’s core and mantle under Canada.

Following on from this, the research team has recently published their latest findings in Nature Geoscience.

Phil Livermore, from the University of Leeds, said, “By analysing magnetic field maps and how they change over time, we can now pinpoint that a change in the circulation pattern of flow underneath Canada has caused a patch of magnetic field at the edge of the core, deep within the Earth, to be stretched out. This has weakened the Canadian patch and resulted in the pole shifting towards Siberia.”

Tug between magnetic blobs

The big question is whether the pole will ever return to Canada or continue heading south.

“Models of the magnetic field inside the core suggest that, at least for the next few decades, the pole will continue to drift towards Siberia,” explained Dr Livermore.

“However, given that the pole’s position is governed by this delicate balance between the Canadian and Siberian patch, it would take only a small adjustment of the field within the core to send the pole back to Canada.”

Related links:

ESA's Swarm mission:

Observing the Earth:

Images, Video, Text, Credits: ESA/N. Gillet/geoGraphics/ATG medialab/P. Livermore.


Sculpted by nature on Mars

ESA - Mars Express Mission patch.

May 14, 2020

Nature is a powerful sculptor – as shown in this image from ESA’s Mars Express, which portrays a heavily scarred, fractured martian landscape. This terrain was formed by intense and prolonged forces that acted upon Mars’ surface for hundreds of millions of years.

Topographic view of Tempe Fossae on Mars

Features on Mars often trick the eye. It can be difficult to tell if the ground has risen up towards you, or dropped away. This is a common phenomenon with impact craters especially, and is aptly named the ‘crater/dome illusion’; in some images, craters appear to be large domes arching up towards the viewer – but look again, and they instead become a depression in the surrounding terrain, as expected.

Such a phenomenon is at play in this image from Mars Express, which shows part of Tempe Fossae, a series of faults that cuts across the region of Tempe Terra in Mars’ northern highlands.

Upon first glance, it is difficult to tell if ground is rising up, sinking down, or a mix of both. The landscape here is scratched, scored, and wrinkled: ridges slice across the frame, interspersed with the odd impact crater, and the entire region is full of cliffs and chasms.

Northeast of Mars’ Tharsis province: Tempe Fossae in context

The terrain here belongs to the volcanic Tharsis province, also known as Tharsis rise, which is located close to the planet equator, at the boundary between low plains in the Northern hemisphere and highlands in the South, and displays a complex geology originating from the processes involved in its formation.

Tempe Fossae is a great example of terrain featuring two key martian features: grabens and horsts. In a way, these are opposites of one another – grabens are slices of ground that have dropped down between two roughly parallel faults, while horsts are ground that has been uplifted between faults.

At most, the grabens seen here reach a few kilometres wide, a few hundred metres deep, and several hundred kilometres long. Both were created by volcanic and tectonic forces acting across the surface of Mars, which fractured the ground and manipulated it into new configurations. Mars Express has observed these features many times before, in regions including Claritas Fossae, Acheron Fossae, and the nearby Ascuris Planum.

Faults and scars near Tharsis province on Mars

Despite any initial visual confusion, this landscape is a mix of faults, elevated ground, deep valleys, and largely parallel ridges, extending both down into the surface and up above the martian crust. The crater/dome illusion is actually just a trick of the light caused by our eyes incorrectly interpreting shadows. Comparing this image to the aforementioned image of Ascuris Planum, a similar terrain, highlights this nicely, demonstrating the importance of lighting conditions in photography.

Our Earth-bound eyes are accustomed to seeing images lit from above, but this is not the default orientation for spacecraft, which can gather data at all angles of sunlight.

Mars Express has a peculiar orbit that is not Sun-synchronous. Sun-synchronous orbits pass over the same spot on a planetary surface at roughly the same local time of day on every orbit – for instance, Earth orbiters passing over a certain city at around noon every day. Mars Express, however, does not do this, and can therefore gather data at a wide range of local times on Mars. As a result, it experiences a range of different illumination conditions as it observes the Red Planet, and produces a varied array of observations and snapshots of our planetary neighbour.

Northeast of Mars’ Tharsis province: Tempe Fossae in 3D

To the right of the frame (pointing to the planet’s north), the surface becomes significantly smoother, with grabens and horsts almost nowhere to be seen. This smoother profile is a result of lava flooding these features before cooling and solidifying, in-filling and resurfacing this part of Mars.

While most of the ridges seen here run parallel to one another from the upper left to lower right, there are also a few scratches cutting across in a perpendicular direction. This is an effect of location, as this patch of terrain is just northeast of the well-known Tharsis province, a past hotspot on Mars for substantial volcanic and tectonic activity.

Tharsis is sizeable. The province measures several thousand kilometres across and five kilometres high on average relative to martian ‘sea level’ – a level that, given the planet’s lack of seas, is arbitrarily defined on Mars based on elevation and atmospheric pressure. It hosts the largest volcanoes in the entire Solar System, ranging from 15 to over 20 kilometres in height.

As the province grew larger and larger over several hundreds of millions of years, it stretched and stressed the surrounding crust, causing it to fracture and tear in different directions. The perpendicular slices seen in this image are evidence of a change in the direction of stress.

Perspective view of Tempe Fossae on Mars

While the formation of Tharsis caused tectonic activity locally, as shown by these slices, it also influenced Mars’ crust on a much larger scale and is thought to have had a major influence in forming Valles Marineris, the largest canyon in the Solar System. Widespread erosion has occurred in Valles Marineris since its formation, shaping and sculpting the landscape into the canyon system we see today.

Exploring the geology of Mars is a key objective of Mars Express. Launched in 2003, the spacecraft has been orbiting the Red Planet for over a decade and a half; it has since been joined by the ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), which arrived in 2016, while the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover and its accompanying surface science platform are scheduled for launch in 2022.

Mars Express

The fleet of spacecraft currently at Mars, operated by several space agencies, are able to image the planet’s surface at scales from the global (with a spatial resolution of around ten metres) to the local (spatial resolution of around one metre). This combination allows scientists to characterise geological processes at global, regional, and local scales, enabling them to work towards a fuller understanding of Mars and its intriguing history.

Related links:

Mars Express:

ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO):

ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover:

Science & Exploration:

Images, Text, Credits: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO/NASA MGS MOLA Science Team.

Best regards,

Laser-powered rover to explore Moon’s dark shadows

ESA - European Space Agency patch.

May 14, 2020

A laser light shone through the dark could power robotic exploration of the most tantalising locations in our Solar System: the permanently-shadowed craters around the Moon’s poles, believed to be rich in water ice and other valuable materials.

ESA’s Discovery & Preparation programme funded the design of a laser system to keep a rover supplied with power from up to 15 km away while it explores some of these dark craters.

A peppering of craters at the Moon’s south pole

At the highest lunar latitudes, the Sun stays low on the horizon all year round, casting long shadows that keep sunken craters mired in permanent shadow, potentially on a timescale of billions of years. Data from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, India’s Chandrayaan-1 and ESA’s SMART-1 orbiters show these ‘permanently shadowed regions’ are rich in hydrogen, strongly suggesting water ice can be found there.

As well as having scientific interest, this ice would be valuable to lunar colonists, as a source of drinking water, oxygen for breathing, as well as a source of hydrogen rocket fuel. But to know for certain requires going into these darkened craters and drilling.

Laser powering Moon rover from lander

Any rover prospecting the shadowed regions would have to do without solar power, while contending with temperatures comparable to the surface of Pluto, down to –240°C, just 30 degrees above absolute zero.

“The standard suggestion for such a situation is to fit the rover with nuclear-based radioisotope thermoelectric generators,” comments ESA robotics engineer Michel Van Winnendael. “But this presents problems of complexity, cost and thermal management – the rover could warm up so much that prospecting and analysing ice samples actually becomes impractical.

“As an alternative, this study looked at harnessing a laser-based power system, inspired by terrestrial laser experiments to keep drones powered and flying for hours on end.”

Landing site and exploration options

The 10-month PHILIP, ‘Powering rovers by High Intensity Laser Induction on Planets’, contract was undertaken for ESA by Italy’s Leonardo company and Romania’s National Institute of Research and Development for Optoelectronics, coming up with a complete laser-powered exploration mission design.

This included selecting a location for the mission lander, in a near-permanently sunlit region between the South Pole’s de Gerlache and Shackleton craters. This lander would host a solar-powered 500-watt infrared laser, which it would keep trained on a 250 kg rover as it entered the shadowed regions.

The rover would convert this laser light into electrical power using a modified version of a standard solar panel, with photodiodes on the sides of the panel keeping it locked onto the laser down to centimetre-scale accuracy.

RAT rover by night

The study identified routes that would take the rover downward at a relatively gentle 10 degrees of slope while keeping it in the lander’s direct line of sight. The laser beam could be used as a two-way communications link, with a modulating retro-reflector mounted on the second of the rover’s solar panels, sending signal pulses in light reflected back to the lander.

Guiding the project requirements, ESA has previously performed field tests at night in Moon-like Tenerife to simulate rover operations in permanent shadow.

Michel adds: “With the PHILIP project completed, we are one step closer to powering rovers with lasers to explore the dark parts of the Moon. We’re at the stage where prototyping and testing could begin, undertaken by follow-up ESA technology programmes.”

Related links:


Romania’s National Institute of Research and Development for Optoelectronics:


Space Engineering & Technology:

ESA’s planetary robotics team:

Images, Text, Credits: ESA/Leonardo/GMV/Fernando Gandía/SMART-1/AMIE camera team; image mosaic: M. Ellouzi/B. Foing, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO.


mercredi 13 mai 2020

SpaceX Demo-2 Crew Members Enter Preflight Quarantine

NASA & SpaceX - Dragon DM-2 First Crewed Flight patch.

May 13, 2020

NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley entered quarantine Wednesday, May 13, in preparation for their upcoming flight to the International Space Station on NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 mission. They’ll lift off aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft carried by the company’s Falcon 9 rocket two weeks later at 4:33 pm Eastern Wednesday, May 27, from the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, people all over the world recently have experienced varying degrees of quarantine – a period of isolation from others to prevent the spread of contagious illness. However, for crews getting ready to launch, “flight crew health stabilization” is a routine part of the final weeks before liftoff for all missions to the space station.

Behnken and Hurley will be the first American astronauts to fly to the station aboard an American spacecraft launched from American soil since the retirement of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011. The Demo-2 flight is an end-to-end test of SpaceX’s crew transportation system, part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. They’ll meet up with the Expedition 63 crew already in residence aboard the orbiting laboratory: NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner.

Image above: NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken familiarize themselves with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, the spacecraft that will transport them to the International Space Station as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Photo credit: SpaceX.

Spending the final two weeks before liftoff in quarantine helps ensure the Demo-2 crew arrives healthy, protecting themselves and their colleagues already on the station.

Since Hurley and Behnken are training side by side and will be working and living as a team on the space station with their crewmates, they’re unable to maintain a six-foot distance. NASA’s quarantine rules are designed to protect astronaut crews while allowing them to continue working closely together, by limiting who can be in close proximity to them and ensuring they stay in environments in which their exposure to contagions or other hazardous materials can be tightly controlled in advance of their launch.

If they are able to maintain quarantine conditions at home, crew members can choose to quarantine from there until they travel to Kennedy Space Center. If for some reason they aren’t able to maintain quarantine conditions at home – for instance, if a family member living with them isn’t able to maintain quarantine because of their job or school requirements – they have the option of living in the Astronaut Quarantine Facility at Johnson Space Center until they leave for Kennedy Space Center.

NASA and SpaceX prepare to #LaunchAmerica

Some additional safeguards have been added because of the coronavirus. For example, anyone who will come on site or interact with the crew during the quarantine period, as well as any VIPs, will be screened for temperature and symptoms. Hurley and Behnken, as well as those in direct, close contact with the crew will be tested twice for the virus as a precaution.

Health stabilization procedures were introduced for the Apollo program, in which NASA astronauts left low-Earth orbit to journey to the Moon, and have continued through the shuttle and International Space Station programs.

Behnken and Hurley will remain in quarantine after their arrival at Kennedy on May 20. Liftoff from Kennedy’s historic Launch Pad 39A is targeted for May 27 at 4:33 p.m. EDT.

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NASA’s TESS Enables Breakthrough Study of Perplexing Stellar Pulsations

NASA - Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) logo.

May 13, 2020

Astronomers have detected elusive pulsation patterns in dozens of young, rapidly rotating stars thanks to data from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). The discovery will revolutionize scientists’ ability to study details like the ages, sizes and compositions of these stars — all members of a class named for the prototype, the bright star Delta Scuti.

“Delta Scuti stars clearly pulsate in interesting ways, but the patterns of those pulsations have so far defied understanding,” said Tim Bedding, a professor of astronomy at the University of Sydney. “To use a musical analogy, many stars pulsate along simple chords, but Delta Scuti stars are complex, with notes that seem to be jumbled. TESS has shown us that’s not true for all of them.”

A paper describing the findings, led by Bedding, appears in the May 14 issue of the journal Nature and is now available online:

Delta Scuti Star Pulsations

Video above: Watch the pulsations of a Delta Scuti star! In this illustration, the star changes in brightness when internal sound waves at different frequencies cause parts of the star to expand and contract. In one pattern, the whole star expands and contracts, while in a second, opposite hemispheres swell and shrink out of sync. In reality, a single star exhibits many pulsation patterns that can tell astronomers about its age, composition and internal structure. The exact light variations astronomers observe also depend on how the star's spin axis angles toward us. Delta Scuti stars spin so rapidly they flatten into ovals, which jumbles these signals and makes them harder to decode. Now, thanks to NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, astronomers are deciphering some of them. Video Credits: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

Geologists studying seismic waves from earthquakes figured out Earth’s internal structure from the way the reverberations changed speed and direction as they traveled through it. Astronomers apply the same principle to study the interiors of stars through their pulsations, a field called asteroseismology.

Sound waves travel through a star’s interior at speeds that change with depth, and they all combine into pulsation patterns at the star’s surface. Astronomers can detect these patterns as tiny fluctuations in brightness and use them to determine the star’s age, temperature, composition, internal structure and other properties.

Delta Scuti stars are between 1.5 and 2.5 times the Sun’s mass. They’re named after Delta Scuti, a star visible to the human eye in the southern constellation Scutum that was first identified as variable in 1900. Since then, astronomers have identified thousands more like Delta Scuti, many with NASA’s Kepler space telescope, another planet-hunting mission that operated from 2009 to 2018.

Animation above: Sound waves bouncing around inside a star cause it to expand and contract, which results in detectable brightness changes. This animation depicts one type of Delta Scuti pulsation — called a radial mode — that is driven by waves (blue arrows) traveling between the star’s core and surface. In reality, a star may pulsate in many different modes, creating complicated patterns that enable scientists to learn about its interior. Animation Credits: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

But scientists have had trouble interpreting Delta Scuti pulsations. These stars generally rotate once or twice a day, at least a dozen times faster than the Sun. The rapid rotation flattens the stars at their poles and jumbles the pulsation patterns, making them more complicated and difficult to decipher.

To determine if order exists in Delta Scuti stars’ apparently chaotic pulsations, astronomers needed to observe a large set of stars multiple times with rapid sampling. TESS monitors large swaths of the sky for 27 days at a time, taking one full image every 30 minutes with each of its four cameras. This observing strategy allows TESS to track changes in stellar brightness caused by planets passing in front of their stars, which is its primary mission, but half-hour exposures are too long to catch the patterns of the more rapidly pulsating Delta Scuti stars. Those changes can happen in minutes.

But TESS also captures snapshots of a few thousand pre-selected stars — including some Delta Scuti stars — every two minutes. When Bedding and his colleagues began sorting through the measurements, they found a subset of Delta Scuti stars with regular pulsation patterns. Once they knew what to look for, they searched for other examples in data from Kepler, which used a similar observing strategy. They also conducted follow-up observations with ground-based telescopes, including one at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii and two in the global Las Cumbres Observatory network. In total, they identified a batch of 60 Delta Scuti stars with clear patterns.

“This really is a breakthrough. Now we have a regular series of pulsations for these stars that we can understand and compare with models,” said co-author Simon Murphy, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Sydney. “It’s going to allow us to measure these stars using asteroseismology in a way that we’ve never been able to do. But it’s also shown us that this is just a stepping-stone in our understanding of Delta Scuti stars.”

Pulsations in the well-behaved Delta Scuti group fall into two major categories, both caused by energy being stored and released in the star. Some occur as the whole star expands and contracts symmetrically. Others occur as opposite hemispheres alternatively expand and contract. Bedding’s team inferred the alterations by studying each star’s fluctuations in brightness.

The data have already helped settle a debate over the age of one star, called HD 31901, a member of a recently discovered stream of stars orbiting within our galaxy. Scientists placed the age of the overall stream at 1 billion years, based on the age of a red giant they suspected belonged to the same group. A later estimate, based on the rotation periods of other members of the stellar stream, suggested an age of only about 120 million years. Bedding’s team used the TESS observations to create an asteroseismic model of HD 31901 that supports the younger age.

Sonification of Delta Scuti Star HD 31901

Video above: Hear the rapid beat of HD 31901, a Delta Scuti star in the southern constellation Lepus. The sound is the result of 55 pulsation patterns TESS observed over 27 days sped up by 54,000 times. Delta Scuti stars have long been known for their apparently random pulsations, but TESS data show that some, like HD 31901, have more orderly patterns. Video Credits: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and Simon Murphy, University of Sydney.

"Delta Scuti stars have been frustrating targets because of their complicated oscillations, so this is a very exciting discovery," said Sarbani Basu, a professor of astronomy at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, who studies asteroseismology but was not involved in the study. "Being able to find simple patterns and identify the modes of oscillation is game changing. Since this subset of stars allows normal seismic analyses, we will finally be able to characterize them properly."

The team thinks their set of 60 stars has clear patterns because they’re younger than other Delta Scuti stars, having only recently settled into producing all of their energy through nuclear fusion in their cores. The pulsations occur more rapidly in the fledgling stars. As the stars age, the frequency of the pulsations slows, and they become jumbled with other signals.

Another factor may be TESS’s viewing angle. Theoretical calculations predict that a spinning star’s pulsation patterns should be simpler when its rotational pole faces us instead of its equator. The team’s TESS data set included around 1,000 Delta Scuti stars, which means that some of them, by chance, must be viewed close to pole-on.

Scientists will continue to develop their models as TESS begins taking full images every 10 minutes instead of every half hour in July. Bedding said the new observing strategy will help capture the pulsations of even more Delta Scuti stars.

Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). Image Credit: NASA

“We knew when we designed TESS that, in addition to finding many exciting new exoplanets, the satellite would also advance the field of asteroseismology,” said TESS Principal Investigator George Ricker at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research in Cambridge. “The mission has already found a new type of star that pulsates on one side only and has unearthed new facts about well-known stars. As we complete the initial two-year mission and commence the extended mission, we’re looking forward to a wealth of new stellar discoveries TESS will make.”

TESS is a NASA Astrophysics Explorer mission led and operated by MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Additional partners include Northrop Grumman, based in Falls Church, Virginia; NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley; the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts; MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory; and the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. More than a dozen universities, research institutes and observatories worldwide are participants in the mission.

Related links:

NASA’s Kepler space telescope:

W.M. Keck Observatory:

Las Cumbres Observatory:

Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research:

TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite):

Animation (mentioned), Image (mentioned), Videos (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Jeannette Kazmierczak/GSFC/Claire Andreoli​.

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JAXA HTV-9 Spacecraft Carries Science, Technology to the International Space Station

ISS - International Space Station logo.

May 13, 2020

A Japanese cargo spacecraft loaded with experiment hardware, supplies and spare parts is scheduled to launch from the Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan to the International Space Station at 1:30 p.m. EDT Wednesday, May 20 (2:30 a.m. May 21 in Japan). The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) unpiloted H-II Transport Vehicle-9 (HTV-9) carries investigations testing a new livestreaming educational tool, microscope and telescope.

Here are details about some of the scientific investigations and facilities heading to the orbiting lab on HTV-9.

Image above: The H-II Transfer Vehicle-8 (HTV-8) from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency is pictured in the grip of the Canadarm2 robotic arm before it was attached to the International Space Station's Harmony module. The orbiting complex was soaring 259 miles above the African nation of Cameroon just after crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Image Credit: NASA.

Coming to you live and interactive from space

A broadcasting studio is opening up in the Japanese Experiment Module (JEM), also known as Kibo. The JAXA-sponsored education-focused experiment known as THE SPACE FRONTIER STUDIO - KIBO enables new livestreaming capabilities on station. Terminals set up next to a window overlooking Earth in the JEM module are to be used for communication. The first round of demonstrations of the technology are set to occur this summer, testing out two-way livestreaming that allows people on the ground to communicate with the astronauts.

Looking back at Earth

Rather than looking out at the stars, this telescope points at our planet. The integrated Standard Imager for Microsatellites (iSIM), a very high-resolution optical binocular telescope developed by Spanish company SATLANTIS MICROSATS S.L., takes images of Earth at less than one meter of resolution. A combination of technologies including optics, mechanics, electronics and artificial intelligence algorithms achieves a high spatial resolution at significantly lower cost compared with traditional imaging systems of similar performance. This experiment demonstrates the technology and its functionality in the low-Earth orbit environment. The prototype is mounted to the JAXA External Facility platform on the space station, which provides sample environment and operational conditions for testing the device.

Image above: Preflight front view of the iSIM-IOD flight unit. The integrated Standard Imager for Microsatellites (iSIM) is a new
generation high-resolution optical payload binocular telescope for Earth observation. Image Credit: SATLANTIS.

A clearer picture of biology in microgravity

The Confocal Space Microscope (Confocal Microscope) is a JAXA facility launching on HTV-9 that enables fluorescence live imaging of biological samples aboard the station. Confocal microscopy eliminates out-of-focus light or glare in specimens whose thickness is greater than the immediate plane of focus. The microscope can produce data on the fundamental nature of cellular and tissue structure and functions in real-time. When combined with the heating chamber system, the microscope enables long term 3D observation of living cells. While biological experiments are the first area of concentration, the microscope could be used for chemical studies as well.

Image above: Confocal Space Microscope being prepared for flight. Image Credit: JAXA.

Other investigations aboard the space station also have been exploring new types of microscopy in microgravity, including FLUMIAS-DEA, which observed samples of fixed cells and live cells using a miniaturized fluorescence microscope.

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New Comet Discovered by ESA and NASA Solar Observatory

NASA & ESA - SOHO Mission patch.

May 13, 2020

In late May and early June, Earthlings may be able to glimpse Comet SWAN. The comet is currently faintly visible to the unaided eye in the Southern Hemisphere just before sunrise — providing skywatchers with a relatively rare glimpse of a comet bright enough to be seen without a telescope. But Comet SWAN's initial discovery was made not from the ground, but via an instrument on board ESA (the European Space Agency) and NASA's Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, or SOHO, satellite.

Animation Credits: ESA/NASA/SOHO

The new comet was first spotted in April 2020, by an amateur astronomer named Michael Mattiazzo using data from a SOHO instrument called Solar Wind Anisotropies, or SWAN — as seen here. The comet appears to leave the left side of the image and reappear on the right side around May 3, because of the way SWAN's 360-degree all-sky maps are shown, much like a globe is represented by a 2D map.

SWAN maps the constantly outflowing solar wind in interplanetary space by focusing on a particular wavelength of ultraviolet light emitted by hydrogen atoms. The new comet — officially classified C/2020 F8 (SWAN) but nicknamed Comet SWAN — was spotted in the images because it's releasing huge amounts of water, about 1.3 tons per second. As water is made of hydrogen and oxygen, this release made Comet SWAN visible to SOHO's instruments.

Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, or SOHO. Image Credits: NASA/ESA

Comet SWAN is the 3,932nd comet discovered using data from SOHO. Almost all of the nearly 4,000 discoveries have been made using data from SOHO's coronagraph, an instrument that blocks out the Sun's bright face using a metal disk to reveal the comparatively faint outer atmosphere, the corona. This is only the 12th comet discovered with the SWAN instrument since SOHO's launch in 1995, eight of which were also discovered by Mattiazzo.

Comet SWAN makes its closest approach to Earth on May 13, at a distance of about 53 million miles. Comet SWAN's closest approach to the Sun, called perihelion, will happen on May 27.
Though it can be very difficult to predict the behavior of comets that make such close approaches to the Sun, scientists are hopeful that Comet SWAN will remain bright enough to be seen as it continues its journey.

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Animation (mentioned), Videos (mentioned), Image (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Rob Garner/GSFC/Sarah Frazier.


mardi 12 mai 2020

The Space Station's Coolest Experiment Gets Astronaut-Assisted Upgrade

ISS - International Space Station logo.

May 12, 2020

The Cold Atom Lab is using microgravity to learn about atoms and the quantum world, which could pave the way for new technologies in space and on the ground. 

Image above: Assisted Upgrade Astronaut Christina Koch assists with a hardware upgrade for NASA's Cold Atom Lab aboard the International Space Station in January 2020. Image Credits: NASA-International Space Station.

NASA's Cold Atom Laboratory, a facility for fundamental physics experiments on the International Space Station, recently underwent a major hardware upgrade with the help of astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir. By chilling atom clouds to just above absolute zero - the lowest temperature matter can reach - Cold Atom Lab enables scientists to directly observe unique atomic behaviors, helping answer questions about how our world works at the smallest scales. The new hardware will dramatically expand Cold Atom Lab's capabilities.

Installing the upgrade in space was something of an experiment as well. On Earth, that task would fall to engineers with years of experience handling the components. To avoid bringing the facility back down from the space station - a costly and time-consuming step - the mission team guided Koch and Meir through the installation via live video conference from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.

"With this upgrade, we were effectively replacing the heart of Cold Atom Lab, and everything had to go perfectly," said Kamal Oudrhiri, project manager for Cold Atom Lab at JPL. "Astronauts are extremely smart, capable people, but we felt like heart surgeons trying to show a general practitioner how to do surgery for the first time. We did everything we could to ensure success, but truthfully I was very nervous."

NASA Working Remotely: How Astronauts Upgraded a Complex Experiment in Space

Video above: Assisted Upgrade Astronaut Christina Koch assists with a hardware upgrade for NASA's Cold Atom Lab aboard the International Space Station in January 2020. Credit: NASA-International Space Station.

Why So Cold?

Physicists use ultracold atom facilities on Earth for a variety of experiments that probe the fundamental behaviors of atoms. Chilling atoms to within one ten billionth of a degree above 0 Kelvin (minus 459.67 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 273.15 degrees Celsius) causes them to slow down significantly, making them easier to study. At those temperatures, some atoms can also form a fifth state of matter, called a Bose-Einstein condensate that does not exist in nature. Bose-Einstein condensates provide a unique window into the strange world of quantum mechanics, which governs the universe at very small scales.

Image above: About the size of a mini fridge, the Cold Atom Lab Science Instrument (left) contains the Science Module, which cools atoms to nearly absolute zero. The smaller box on the right contains additional hardware. Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Cold Atom Lab is the first ultracold atom facility in Earth orbit. In the weightless environment of space, atoms aren't pulled down by gravity, so they exist in their unbound, ultracool state for long periods of time. This characteristic enables scientists to observe their natural behaviors in a way that is not possible on Earth.

Five science groups have been conducting experiments with Cold Atom Lab since it began operating in the summer of 2018, and they're eager to begin working with the upgraded hardware, including a new instrument called an atom interferometer. In space, atom interferometry could have multiple applications, including making exquisitely subtle measurements of gravity that are useful for fundamental physics research, planetary science and other fields.

For example, atom interferometry could be used to measure changes in gravity across a planet's surface to learn about its composition and subsurface features. The tool could also be used to test Albert Einstein's fundamental theory of gravity to an unprecedented degree. The Cold Atom Lab team recently confirmed that the atom interferometer is working as expected, making it the first instrument of its kind to operate in space.

"With Cold Atom Lab we're looking for new physics that pops up only when you can study the universe at extremely fine scales," said Jason Williams, the lead scientist for the Cold Atom Lab atom interferometer at JPL.

No Second Chance

Cold Atom Lab consists of two metal boxes, the larger of which is called the Science Instrument and weighs over 400 pounds (180 kilograms). Inside is a compartment called the Science Module, which is where the atoms are cooled and the science takes place.

To complete the upgrade, Koch and Meir would have to gently manuever the sizeable Science Instrument out of its operating location on the space station, remove the old Science Module and replace it with the new one.

Months before the installation, members of the Cold Atom Lab team worked with the Payload Operation and Integration Center at NASA's Marshal Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, to create instructions for Koch and Meir. They divided the installation into six sessions over eight days, including practice for Koch. Crew time on the station is extremely valuable, so the mission team spent weeks practicing the steps on Earth to optimize the procedure.

"There are so many details that it's difficult to even explain," said Jim Kellogg, launch vehicle and space station integration lead for Cold Atom Lab at JPL. "We had to consider details such as what tools will the crew need? If we need to borrow a tool from another group on the space station, how do we do that? Where is everything going to be temporarily stowed while the astronauts are working on our instrument? Every detail needs to be documented and signed off, and the people at Marshall Space Flight Center supported us through every step of the way."

Image above: Assisted Upgrade In January 2020, members of the Cold Atom Lab operations team assisted remotely in a hardware upgrade to Cold Atom Lab while the facility was still aboard the International Space Station. Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

To reinstall the Science Instrument, Koch, working alone, would have to inspect and connect 11 precision fiber optic cables. The glass fiber cores of the cables are about one-twentieth the diameter of a human hair, and if any were broken, contaminated or scratched, it could potentially result in mission-ending failures.

"She was absolutely fantastic," Kellogg said of Koch. "Every time I was about to remind her of something or give her a heads-up about what was coming, she would already be on top of it. She was so attentive to every detail in our procedures and to the guidance I was giving her. She was amazing in every way."

Koch was equally enthusiastic about the experience. "It took me over 300 days [since arriving on the space station] to get to work on Cold Atom Lab, but it was worth it," she said on the first day of the activity.

And how did the installation turn out? So far, it looks like a complete success.

"This was an extremely difficult endeavor that required a dedicated team on the ground and two committed astronauts, Christina and Jessica," said Oudrhiri. "If this installation hadn't gone well, there would have been no second chance. We'd have to bring the entire flight instrument back to Earth, and that could have set us back at least two years."

International Space Station (ISS). Image Credit: NASA

Once testing and analysis of the new hardware are complete in the coming weeks, the team expects the science groups that use the Cold Atom Lab to begin taking data again.

Building an ultracold atom facility that could withstand the trip to space, operate with little to no astronaut assistance, and even be upgraded in orbit took the Cold Atom Lab team years. Now they hope their work has kicked off an era in which quantum science is done regularly in orbit.

Designed and built at JPL, Cold Atom Lab is sponsored by the Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications (SLPSRA) division of NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington and the International Space Station Program at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

For more information about Cold Atom Lab, visit:

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Image (mentioned), Video (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/JPL/Calla Cofield.