samedi 21 novembre 2020

New Copernicus satellite to monitor sea-level rise launched


ESA & NASA - Sentinel-6 Mission patch.

Nov. 21, 2020

The Copernicus Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich satellite has been launched into orbit around Earth on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Using the latest radar altimetry technology, this new satellite is set to  provide a new overview of ocean topography and advance the long-term record of sea-surface height measurements that began in 1992 – measurements that are essential for climate science, for policy-making and, ultimately, for protecting the lives of millions at risk of sea-level rise.

Copernicus Sentinel-6 lifts off

Carrying the 1.2 tonne Sentinel-6 satellite, the Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, US, at 17:17 GMT (18:17 CET, 09:17 PST) on 21 November. The satellite was delivered into orbit just under an hour after liftoff and contact was established at the ground station in Alaska at 19:49 CET.

ESA - Copernicus Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich liftoff replay

ESA's Director of Earth Observation Programmes, Josef Aschbacher, said, “I'm extremely proud to have seen Copernicus Sentinel-6 liftoff this evening and know that it's well on its way to starting its mission of continuing the measurements of sea level that are so needed to understand and monitor the worrying trend of rising seas. I would not only like to thank the ESA teams that have worked so hard to get to this point, but also the EC, Eumetsat, NASA, NOAA and CNES, and, of course, we very much look forward to further fruitful cooperation between our respective organisations.”

Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich deployment

With millions of people living in coastal communities around the world, rising seas are at the top of the list of major concerns linked to climate change. Monitoring sea-surface height is critical to understanding the changes taking place so that decision-makers have the evidence to implement appropriate policies to help curb climate change and for authorities to take action to protect vulnerable communities.

Over the last three decades, the French–US Topex-Poseidon and Jason mission series served as reference missions, and in combination with ESA’s earlier ERS and Envisat satellites, as well as today’s CryoSat and Copernicus Sentinel-3, they have shown how sea level has risen about 3.2 mm on average every year. More alarmingly, this rate of rise has been accelerating; over the last few years, the average rate of rise has been 4.8 mm a year.

Measuring sea-level change

Now in orbit, Copernicus Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich will soon pick up the baton and extend this dataset – a dataset that is the ‘gold standard’ for climate studies. The mission comprises two identical satellites launched sequentially – so in five years, Copernicus Sentinel-6B will be launched to take over. The mission as a whole will ensure the continuity of data until at least 2030.

Each satellite carries a radar altimeter, which works by measuring the time it takes for radar pulses to travel to Earth’s surface and back again to the satellite. Combined with precise satellite location data, altimetry measurements yield the height of the sea surface.

The satellites’ instrument package also includes an advanced microwave radiometer that accounts for the amount of water vapour in atmosphere, which affects the speed of the altimeter’s radar pulses.

Copernicus Sentinel-6 in action

While heritage has been key to the mission’s design, Sentinel-6 brings, for the first time, synthetic aperture radar into the altimetry reference mission time series. To ensure that no bias is introduced into the time series, the radar instrument operates in a continuous burst mode, simultaneously providing conventional low-resolution mode measurements and the improved performance of synthetic aperture radar processing.

To ensure that the data time series is continuous despite the change of instrument technologies, Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich is spending its first year in orbit flying just 30 seconds behind Jason-3.

Orbiting at an altitude of over 1300 km and reaching 66°N and 66°S, Sentinel-6 provides sufficient measurements to map the height of the sea surface over 95% of the world’s ice-free oceans every 10 days.

Copernicus Sentinel-6 orbital tracks

While Sentinel-6 is one of the European Union’s family of Copernicus missions, its implementation is the result of a unique cooperation between the European Commission ESA, Eumetsat, NASA and NOAA, with contribution from the CNES French space agency.

The European Commission’s Director-General for Defence Industry and Space, Timo Pesonen, said, “We are very pleased to welcome this newcomer to the EU’s fleet of Copernicus Sentinel satellites. Copernicus Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich will enable delivering enhanced products and information concerning the oceans and the atmosphere to improve the daily lives of our citizens. The arrival of this satellite is another success for Copernicus, for Europe, for all mission partners and worldwide.”

ESA has been responsible for the development of the Poseidon-4 radar altimeter and development of the Copernicus Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich, as a whole. It is also responsible for the procurement of Copernicus Sentinel-6B on behalf of the European Commission and Eumetsat.

Sea-level monitoring satellite lifts off

Transfer of ownership goes to the EC at the point of liftoff. ESA takes care of the early orbit phase as well as in-orbit verification planning, and supports flight operations performed by Eumetsat.

Eumetsat is responsible for the development of the ground segment and for operations after the launch and early orbit phases. Eumetsat processes the data and delivers the data products services to European users.

Eumetsat’s Director General, Alain Ratier, said, “Data from Copernicus Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich will be the most accurate yet and will be used to gain a deeper understanding of global sea-level rise, a key indicator of climate change. The data will also be used for weather forecasting, from improving the accuracy of seasonal forecasts to predicting the tracks of hurricanes and cyclones.”

NASA has the responsibility for the launch services, the development of the microwave radiometer, the laser retroreflector and GNSS radio occultation receiver. It also provides ground segment support and contributes to the operations and data processing in the US. NASA and NOAA share responsibility for the distribution of data products to users in the US.

“Mike Freilich helped ensure NASA was a steadfast partner with scientists and space agencies worldwide, and his love of oceanography and Earth science helped us improve the understanding of our beautiful planet," said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's Associate Administrator for Science at the Agency's Headquarters in Washington. “This satellite, so graciously named for him by our European partners, will carry out the critical work Mike so believed in – adding to a legacy of crucial data about our oceans and paying it forward for the benefit of future generations.”

Related links:



Observing the Earth:

Images, Videos, Text, Credits: ESA/NASA/SpaceX.

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vendredi 20 novembre 2020

Expanded Crew Syncs Schedule and Steps Up Space Research


ISS - Expedition 64 Mission patch.

Nov. 20, 2020

The seven-member Expedition 64 crew has synched up its schedule following a busy week that saw the arrival of the SpaceX Crew-1 mission and a Russian spacewalk.

The International Space Station’s four newest crew members are fitting in a variety of space research today. The quartet also continues to get up to speed with station systems and procedures.

Image above: Expedition 64 Flight Engineer Soichi Noguchi of JAXA is pictured inside the cupola with the SpaceX Crew Dragon vehicle visible behind his left shoulder. Image Credit: NASA.

Flight Engineers Michael Hopkins and Victor Glover, the SpaceX Crew Dragon commander and pilot, respectively, researched how their dexterous manipulation is affected by microgravity. The Grip study may influence the development of future space systems and interfaces as NASA plans missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi, now on his third space mission, set up the Avatar-X robotic camera experiment then worked on a specialized incubator that can generate artificial gravity. NASA astronaut Shannon Walker, who last served aboard the station in 2010, installed an air-particle monitor in the Tranquility module and later continued her ceramic manufacturing research.

International Space Station (ISS). Animation Credit: NASA

The two Expedition 64 cosmonauts, Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov, cleaned their Russian Orlan spacesuits today following Wednesday’s spacewalk. The duo spent six hours and 48 minutes readying the station’s Russian segment for the Nauka multipurpose laboratory module.

NASA Flight Engineer Kate Rubins collected radish leaf samples being grown inside the Advanced Plant Habitat. Rubins then switched over to lab maintenance, checking water tanks and filters in the Destiny laboratory module’s life support rack.

Related links:

Expedition 64:

SpaceX Crew-1:


Advanced Plant Habitat:

Space Station Research and Technology:

International Space Station (ISS):

Image (mentioned), Animation (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Catherine Williams.

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Hubble Captures Cosmic Cinnamon Bun


NASA & ESA - Hubble Space Telescope patch.

Nov. 20, 2020

Observed with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, the faint galaxy featured in this image is known as UGC 12588. Unlike many spiral galaxies, UGC 12588 displays neither a bar of stars across its center nor the classic prominent spiral arm pattern. Instead, to a viewer, its circular, white and mostly unstructured center makes this galaxy more reminiscent of a cinnamon bun than a megastructure of stars and gas in space.

Lying in the constellation of Andromeda in the Northern Hemisphere, this galaxy is classified as a spiral galaxy. Unlike the classic image of a spiral galaxy, however, the huge arms of stars and gas in UGC 12588 are very faint, undistinguished, and tightly wound around its center. The clearest view of the spiral arms comes from the bluer stars sprinkled around the edges of the galaxy that highlight the regions where new star formation is most likely taking place.

Hubble Space Telescope (HST)

For more information about Hubble, visit:

Text Credits: European Space Agency/NASA/Lynn Jenner/Image, Animation Credits: ESA/Hubble & NASA, R. Tully; Acknowledgment: Gagandeep Anand.


Space Station Science Highlights: Week of November 16, 2020


ISS - Expedition 64 Mission patch.

Nov. 20, 2020

The week of Nov. 16, crew members aboard the International Space Station conducted scientific investigations on how microgravity affects body movement and wrapped up another mission taking student-requested photographs of Earth. The crew also set up a virtual reality camera to capture the Nov. 17 arrival of NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, and Shannon Walker; and Soichi Noguchi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

Image above: The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft approaching the International Space Station for docking to the Harmony module's forward port. Image Credit: NASA.

The new crew members are part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which increases the crew time available for science on the orbiting lab. The space station has been continuously inhabited by humans for 20 years and has supported many scientific breakthroughs during that time. The station provides a platform for long-duration research in microgravity and for learning to live and work in space, experience that 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:

Take a virtual spacewalk

During the week, crew members set up and filmed for The ISS Experience. The project is creating an immersive virtual reality (VR) series documenting life and research aboard the space station, using a customized 360-degree camera that arrived in December 2018. An additional camera, launched on the 14th Northrop Grumman Cygnus resupply spacecraft, was modified in order to film a spacewalk from start to finish. It features special design elements to accommodate unique conditions in space, including temperature extremes and variable light exposure due to the multiple sunsets and sunrises the station experiences as it orbits Earth about every 90 minutes. The project also plans to capture footage of Earth and the exterior of the space station for the final episodes of Space Explorers: The ISS Experience. The series, which premiered its first episode this fall on multiple platforms, is a partnership of the ISS National Lab, Time, and Felix and Paul Studios.

Moving around in space

Animation above: NASA astronaut Victor Glover performs a session for the VECTION investigation, which determines how microgravity affects the way astronauts visually interpret their physical motion, orientation, and distance from objects. Animation Credit: NASA.

Understanding the effects of microgravity on body movement is important for astronaut safety and performance in space and on future missions to the Moon and Mars. A Canadian Space Agency (CSA) investigation, VECTION, determines how microgravity affects the way astronauts visually interpret their physical motion, orientation, and distance from objects and how those abilities may adapt in space. Multiple experimental time points inflight and upon return to Earth allows for examining adaptation in space and the recovery process once back in normal gravity. The crew performed sessions for the investigation during the week.

Studying Earth from above

Image above: Taken from the space station as part of EarthKAM Mission 72, this image shows part of Madagascar, Africa. Image Credit: NASA.

Marking the conclusion of another successful mission, the crew stowed hardware for EarthKAM, a project that allows students to photograph and examine Earth from the perspective of space. Students on the ground control a special digital camera on the space station to photograph the Earth's coastlines, mountain ranges, and other geographic items of interest. The EarthKAM team posts the photographs online for viewing by the public and participating classrooms around the world. To date, more than one million students from almost 13,000 schools have requested more than 713,000 images.   

Other investigations on which the crew performed work:

- Avatar-X, an investigation from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), controls a space station camera from the ground to demonstrate remote robotic technology.

- SERFE demonstrates a new water evaporation technology to maintain appropriate temperatures in spacesuits.
- Drop Vibration examines the behavior of big liquid drops when their contact lines move rapidly as drops change shape through merging or due to vibration. These motions are fast and small on Earth but become slower and larger in microgravity, making it possible to observe them more closely.

- STaARs BioScience-12 examines how specific proteins behave under the stress of microgravity and cosmic radiation in an effort to determine how to prevent instability and degradation, potentially supporting better design of biopharmaceuticals.

- Standard Measures collects a set of consistent measurements from U.S. crew members to help characterize the effects of living and working in space on the human body.

Image above: Radish plants grow in the space station’s Advanced Plant Habitat for the Plant Habitat-02 investigation, which determines the effects of space on growth of this model organism. Image Credit: NASA.

- Plant Habitat-02 cultivates radish plants (Raphanus sativus) to determine the effects of space on their growth. This model plant is nutritious, has a short cultivation time, and is genetically similar to Arabidopsis, a plant frequently studied in microgravity.

- Radi-N2, a Canadian Space Agency investigation, uses bubble detectors to map the neutron environment aboard the space station and better define the risk posed to the health of crew members.

- Food Acceptability looks at how the appeal of food changes during long-duration missions. Whether crew members like and actually eat foods directly affects caloric intake and associated nutritional benefits.

- Actiwatch is a monitor worn by a crew member that continuously collects data on circadian rhythms, sleep-wake patterns, and activity during flight, beginning as soon as possible after arrival aboard the station.

Space to Ground: Resilience Rises: 11/20/2020

Related links:

Expedition 64:

The ISS Experience:

Customized 360-degree camera:

ISS National Lab:


Felix and Paul Studios:



Spot the Station:

Space Station Research and Technology:

International Space Station (ISS):

Images (mentioned), Animation (mentioned), Video (NASA), Text, Credits: NASA/Michael Johnson/John Love, ISS Research Planning Integration Scientist Expedition 64.

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Rocket Lab - Electron “Return to Sender” launch


Rocket Lab - Launch 16 "Return to Sender" Mission patch.

Nov. 20, 2020

Electron “Return to Sender” launch

Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle launched the “Return to Sender” mission from Launch Complex 1 on Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand, on 20 November 2020, at 02:20 UTC (15:20 NZT). “Return to Sender” is a rideshare mission with 30 satellites launched to a sun-synchronous orbit at 500 km altitude.

Electron “Return to Sender” launch

The mission is Electron’s 16th launch and the first to attempt to bring Electron’s first stage back to Earth under a parachute system for a controlled water landing, before collection by a recovery vessel.

A Rocket Lab Electron rocket launches 30 small satellites and payloads for a range of customers, including TriSept, Unseenlabs, Swarm Technologies, Te Pūnaha Ātea – Auckland Space Institute, and Gabe Newell, co-founder of global gaming software company Valve.

Electron rocket first stage back to Earth

Rocket Lab also try to attempt to recover the Electron rocket’s first stage by parachute for the first time. Delayed from Nov. 15 and Nov. 18.

Rocket Lab:

Images, Video, Text, Credits: Illustrations, images and video courtesy of Rocket Lab, SciNews, Aerospace/Roland Berga.


jeudi 19 novembre 2020

Black Hole's Dust Ring May Be Casting Shadows From Heart of a Galaxy


NASA - Hubble Space Telescope patch.

Nov. 19, 2020

Some of the most stunning views of our sky occur at sunset, when sunlight pierces the clouds, creating a mixture of bright and dark rays formed by the clouds' shadows and the beams of light scattered by the atmosphere.

Astronomers studying nearby galaxy IC 5063 are tantalized by a similar effect in images taken by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. In this case, a collection of narrow bright rays and dark shadows is seen beaming out of the blazingly bright center of the active galaxy.

Image above: This Hubble Space Telescope image of the heart of nearby active galaxy IC 5063 reveals a mixture of bright rays and dark shadows coming from the blazing core, home of a supermassive black hole. Astronomers suggest that a ring of dusty material surrounding the black hole may be casting its shadow into space. According to their scenario, this interplay of light and shadow may occur when light blasted by the monster black hole strikes the dust ring, which is buried deep inside the core. Light streams through gaps in the ring, creating the brilliant cone-shaped rays. However, denser patches in the disk block some of the light, casting long, dark shadows through the galaxy. This phenomenon is similar to sunlight piercing our Earthly clouds at sunset, creating a mixture of bright rays and dark shadows formed by beams of light scattered by the atmosphere. However, the bright rays and dark shadows appearing in IC 5063 are happening on a vastly larger scale, shooting across at least 36,000 light-years. IC 5063 resides 156 million light-years from Earth. The observations were taken on March 7 and Nov. 25, 2019 by Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 and Advanced Camera for Surveys. Image Credits: NASA, ESA, and W.P. Maksym (CfA).

A team of astronomers, led by Peter Maksym of the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian (CfA), in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has traced the rays back to the galaxy's core, the location of an active supermassive black hole. A black hole is a dense, compact region of space that swallows light and matter under the crushing pull of gravity. The monster object is frenetically feeding on infalling material, producing a powerful gusher of light from superheated gas near it.

Although the researchers have developed several plausible theories for the lightshow, the most intriguing idea suggests that an inner-tube-shaped ring, or torus, of dusty material surrounding the black hole is casting its shadow into space.

According to Maksym's proposed scenario, the dust disk around the black hole doesn't block all of the light. Gaps in the disk allow light to beam out, creating brilliant cone-shaped rays similar to the fingers of light sometimes seen at sunset. However, the rays in IC 5063 are happening on a vastly larger scale, shooting across at least 36,000 light-years.

Some of the light hits dense patches in the ring, casting the ring's shadow into space. These shadows appear as dark finger shapes interspersed with bright rays. These beams and shadows are visible because the black hole and its ring are tipped sideways relative to the plane of the galaxy. This alignment allows the light beams to extend far outside the galaxy.

This interplay of light and shadow offers a unique insight into the distribution of material encircling the black hole. In some areas, the material may resemble scattered clouds. If this interpretation is correct, the observations may provide an indirect probe of the disk's mottled structure.

"I'm most excited by the shadow of the torus idea because it's a really cool effect that I don't think we've seen before in images, although it has been hypothesized," Maksym said. "Scientifically, it's showing us something that is hard—usually impossible—to see directly. We know this phenomenon should happen, but in this case, we can see the effects throughout the galaxy. Knowing more about the geometry of the torus will have implications for anybody trying to understand the behavior of supermassive black holes and their environments. As a galaxy evolves, it is shaped by its central black hole."

Studying the torus is important because it funnels material toward the black hole. If the "shadow" interpretation is accurate, the dark rays provide indirect evidence that the disk in IC 5063 could be very thin, which explains why light is leaking out all around the structure.

Observations of similar black holes by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory detected X-rays leaking out of holes in the torus, making the structure appear like Swiss cheese. The holes may be caused by the disk being torqued by internal forces, causing it to warp, Maksym said. "It's possible that the warping creates big enough gaps for some of the light to shine through, and as the torus rotates, beams of light could sweep across the galaxy like lighthouse beams through fog," he added.

Citizen Science Serendipity

Although astronomers have been studying the galaxy for decades, it took a non-scientist to make the surprising discovery. Judy Schmidt, an artist and amateur astronomer based in Modesto, California, uncovered the dark shadows when she reprocessed Hubble exposures of the galaxy in December 2019. Schmidt routinely culls the Hubble archive for interesting observations that she can turn into beautiful images. She shares those images on her Twitter feed with her many followers, who include astronomers such as Maksym.

Schmidt selected the Hubble observations of IC 5063 from the archive because she is interested in galaxies that have active cores. The cone-shaped shadows were not apparent in the original exposures, so she was surprised to see them in her reprocessed image. "I had no idea they were there, and even after I'd processed it, I kept blinking my eyes wondering if I was seeing what I thought I was seeing," she said.

Hubble Space Telescope (HST). Animation Credits: NASA/ESA

She immediately posted her image to her Twitter account. "It was something I'd never seen before, and even though I had strong suspicions about them being shadow rays or 'crepuscular rays,' as Peter has dubbed them, it's easy to let one's imagination and wishful thinking run wild," she explained. "I figured if I was wrong, someone would come to ground me."

The image prompted a lively Twitter discussion among her astronomer followers, including Maksym, who debated the rays' origin. Maksym had already been analyzing Hubble images of the jets produced by the galaxy's black hole. So he took the lead in studying the rays and writing a science paper. His study is based on near-infrared observations made by Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 and Advanced Camera for Surveys in March and November 2019. Red and near-infrared light pierces the dusty galaxy to reveal the details that may be enshrouded in dust.

This discovery would not have been possible without Hubble's sharp vision. The galaxy is also relatively nearby, only 156 million light-years from Earth. "Older images from telescopes on the ground showed maybe hints of this kind of structure, but the galaxy itself is such a mess that you'd never guess that this is what's going on without Hubble," Maksym explained. "Hubble has sharp pictures, is sensitive to faint things, and has a big enough field of view to image the entire galaxy."

Maksym hopes to continue his study of the galaxy to determine whether his scenario is correct. "We will want to keep investigating, and it will be great if other scientists try to test our conclusions, too, with new observations and modeling," he said. "This is a project that is just begging for new data because it raises more questions than it answers."

The team's results were published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters:

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and ESA (European Space Agency). NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, D.C.

Hubble Space Telescope (HST):

Image (mentioned), Animation (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Lynn Jenner/GSFC/Claire Andreoli/Space Telescope Science Institute/Donna Weaver/Ray Villard/Center for Astrophysics - Harvard & Smithsonian/Peter Maksym.

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Marshall Team Enables Increased Science Return from International Space Station Astronauts


NASA Marshall Space Flight Center logo.

Nov. 19, 2020

Flying silently through the void of space around a globe of blue and green is the most advanced science laboratory ever developed: the International Space Station. Inside humanity’s orbiting outpost is a buzz of activity as explorers, pilots, doctors, and scientists from around the world conduct experiments, maintain the facility, and develop new technologies.

For the past 20 years, between two and six humans regularly inhabit and work aboard the space station. The Payload Operations Integration Center at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, schedules, assists with, and coordinates all of the experiments on the U.S. Orbital Segment – the USOS.

Image above: The Payload Operations Integration Center at Marshall is the heartbeat for International Space Station research operations. Image Credits: NASA/Fred Deaton.

On Nov. 16, the number of crew members climbed from three to seven when the Crew-1 mission docked to the outpost, and the four astronauts who launched and flew on a Crew Dragon capsule owned and operated by SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, the first NASA-certified commercial human spacecraft system in history, joined the Expedition 64 mission. With additional astronauts aboard the space station, the science capability increased. The team at Marshall was ready to put NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, and Shannon Walker, and Soichi Noguchi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to work.

“A few years ago, we started getting ready for the additional crew because we knew commercial crew was coming. We started putting into place different concepts as far as making sure we had the right amount of people working real-time to support the additional operations,” said Chris Wakefield, a payload operations manager in the Payload Operations Integration Center.

During missions with three crew members on the space station – with one of them working in the USOS – approximately 40-50 hours of science can be performed each week. A seven-astronaut crew – in this case with five astronauts working in the USOS – can more than double the return and perform 80-100 hours of science each week.

Image above: NASA astronauts – including Christina Koch, left, and Drew Morgan – perform experiments and maintain the orbiting laboratory. Image Credits: NASA/Christina Koch.

Specialists at Marshall integrate each experiment into the space station’s operational timeline. At any given moment, approximately 200 experiments are being worked remotely from the ground and by the orbiting crew. Resources, such as crew time and the availability of work stations where the experiments are set up and operated, are carefully managed to ensure each investigation is operated safely and properly and that the maximum amount of science is returned.

Scheduling the crew’s time can be complex, though.

“You’ve got five USOS crew members. On a given day, three or four of them may all be doing payloads, but they’ve all got to be able to do those payloads at the same time,” Wakefield said. “We’re looking at how things fit together across work stations to make sure the crew members won’t be in each other’s way.”

The team at Marshall is also prepared to help resolve any issues that arise as an astronaut is working on an experiment, having collaborated with each experiment’s scientists from the time an experiment is selected to fly on the space station.

“We have the real-time control team that is following along with the operations every day,” Wakefield explained. “They’re dealing with those issues that come up when something is not working quite right or a payload developer sees something unusual, like an unexpected result from their science. Sometimes you have changes that have to be made on-the-fly.”

Another complexity the Marshall team must work through is the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. According to Wakefield, the pandemic requires the team to schedule some members to work remotely, in order to maintain proper distancing. The increase in space station crew members necessitates additional staff on-site, requiring his team to determine the best way to have the needed staff in the Payload Operations Integration Center, while keeping everyone spaced out and safe.

Despite the pandemic and challenges, enthusiasm at Marshall is high.

“It’s very exciting for all of us. You can see it with the team: folks are excited about having the extra astronaut up there. We love helping to take care of the science payloads, and this gives us more opportunity to do that,” Wakefield said.

Image above: Astronauts and experiments on the International Space Station work to make life better on Earth and help humanity explore deep into the cosmos. Image Credit: NASA.
On a clear night, mission planners, scientists, and countless other people can step outside and watch the space station zip through sky; a bright, fast-moving dot. Onboard that “dot,” the experiments managed by the Marshall team are improving life on Earth, igniting the inspiration and imagination of kids young and old, and helping humanity explore deeper into the cosmos than ever before.

To learn more about Payload Operations Integration Center, visit:

To learn more about the science and research on the space station, visit:

To learn more about the Crew-1 mission, visit:

Related links:

Payload Operations Integration Center:

Expedition 64:

Commercial Crew:

Space Station Research and Technology:

Images (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/William Bryan/Marshall Space Flight Center/Janet Anderson.


Space Science Ramps Up as Spacewalkers Sleep In


ISS - Expedition 64 Mission patch.

Nov. 19, 2020

Three Expedition 64 crewmates slept in today following Wednesday’s spacewalk to upgrade the International Space Station for a new Russian module. Meanwhile, the station’s four newest crew members are adjusting to life in space, working science and unloading cargo from the SpaceX Crew Dragon vehicle.

NASA astronaut Kate Rubins had a long day Wednesday as she assisted cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov during their six-hour and 48-minute spacewalk. The trio had an extended sleep shift Thursday having also adjusted their schedules at the beginning of the week to welcome the four astronauts aboard the Crew Dragon.

Image above: SpaceX Crew-1 Pilot and Expedition 64 Flight Engineer Victor Glover is pictured inside the Crew Dragon vehicle. Image Credit: NASA.

The extended crew woke up at 7 a.m. EST and jumped right into a busy workday getting familiarized with station systems and working space research. At the end of the day, the quartet also briefed mission controllers and discussed their experience riding in the Crew Dragon vehicle.

Flight Engineers Victor Glover and Soichi Noguchi partnered up Wednesday morning and transferred cargo from Crew Dragon into the station. The duo then split up as Glover participated in the Vection study to understand how astronauts visually perceive and adapt to the space environment. Noguchi spent a good portion of his day inside the Japanese Kibo lab module servicing the Cell Biology Experiment Facility, an incubator that can generate artificial gravity.

International Space Station (ISS). Animation Credit: ESA

Flight Engineer Michael Hopkins, who is also the Crew Dragon commander, explored water droplets to help engineers design improved spacecraft fuel and life support systems. Flight Engineer Shannon Walker studied ceramic manufacturing to boost the aviation industry and the commercialization of space.

Related articles:

Cosmonauts Wrap Up Spacewalk at Station

Cosmonauts Begin Spacewalk to Ready Station for New Module

Related links:

Expedition 64:


Cell Biology Experiment Facility:

Water droplets:

Ceramic manufacturing:

Space Station Research and Technology:

International Space Station (ISS):

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

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Lunar Gateway Instruments to Improve Weather Forecasting for Artemis Astronauts


NASA - ARTEMIS Program logo.

Nov. 19, 2020

One of the first things people want to know before taking a trip is what the weather will be like wherever they are headed. For Artemis astronauts traveling on missions to the Moon, two space weather instrument suites, NASA’s HERMES and ESA’s ERSA, will provide an early forecast. Weather in this case means energized, subatomic particles and electromagnetic fields hurtling through the solar system.

The instrument suites, named after two of Artemis’s half-siblings in Greek Mythology – Ersa, the goddess of dew, and Hermes, the messenger of the Olympian gods – will be pre-loaded on the Gateway before the first two components are launched: the Power and Propulsion Element and the Habitation and Logistics Outpost. The two instrument suites will begin monitoring the lunar radiation environment and return data before crews begin to arrive.

Image above: Artist's concept of the Gateway Power and Propulsion Element, or PPE, and Habitation and Logistics Outpost, or HALO, in orbit around the Moon. The gold box on the right side of the image depicts the HERMES payload. The ERSA payload is the silver box just below it. Image Credit: NASA.

Reinforcing decades of agency collaboration in space, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are each building one of the instruments suites to monitor deep space weather and report data back to Earth. Each agency was able to take advantage of this early opportunity to conduct science from Gateway – first realized in late 2019 – by capitalizing on technologies that were mature enough to be delivered by mid-2022. The two complementary mini weather stations will split up the work, with ERSA monitoring space radiation at higher energies with a focus on astronaut protection, while HERMES monitors lower energies critical to scientific investigations.

Swimming in a solar sea

The night sky may appear dark and empty, but we are swimming through an open sea of high energy particles writhing with electric and magnetic fields. Electrons and ions zoom by at over one million miles per hour, with occasional blasts from solar storms pushing them to near light-speed. This stream of particles, or tiny bits of Sun, is the solar wind.

Image above: Artist rendition showing the flapping of the magnetosphere (dark region), which leaves the Moon exposed to energized particles in the solar wind (yellow-orange). Gateway’s path around the Moon, the near-rectilinear halo orbit, will pass briefly through the elongated tail of Earth’s magnetosphere. Image Credits: E. Masongsong, UCLA EPSS.

Earth’s magnetic field, which extends approximately 60,000 miles into space, protects us and our astronaut crew closer to home aboard the International Space Station. As the Moon orbits Earth, it passes in and out of Earth’s long magnetotail, the part of Earth’s magnetic field blown back by the solar wind like a windsock. Gateway, however, will spend only a quarter of its time within this magnetic field, so it provides a research opportunity to directly measure the solar wind and radiation from the Sun.


HERMES, short for Heliophysics Environmental and Radiation Measurement Experiment Suite, will glimpse what’s happening deep in the magnetotail, allowing NASA to compare its observations to two of the five THEMIS spacecraft, a pair of Moon-orbiters that carry some similar instruments as HERMES. The ability to collect data simultaneously from the three instrument suites in different locations will provide a rare opportunity to reconstruct solar wind behavior as it changes over time.

HERMES will measure lower energy radiation that will be considered for astronaut safety where applicable, but its primary goal is scientific.

“The deep space environment is harsh, but by understanding space weather and solar activity we can properly mitigate risks to our astronauts and hardware,” said Jacob Bleacher, chief exploration scientist in the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters in Washington. “HERMES and ERSA are a perfect example of the synergy between science and exploration.”

Image above: A model diagram of NASA's HERMES instrument suite. The four instruments are shown along with the ICE BOX, or Instrument Control Electronics Box, and SWEM, or Solar Wind electrons alphas and protons Electronics Module. Image Credit: NASA.

HERMES is led by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Maryland. It consists of four instruments mounted together on a platform: A magnetometer, which measures the magnetic fields around Gateway, the Miniaturized Electron pRoton Telescope, or MERiT, which measures ions and electrons; the Electron Electrostatic Analyzer, or EEA, which measures the lower energy electrons that make up most of the solar wind, and the Solar Probe Analyzer for Ions, or SPAN-I, which measures protons and ions including oxygen. The magnetometer, MERiT and EEA are provided by Goddard; SPAN-I is built at the University of California, Berkeley.


ERSA, or European Radiation Sensors Array, will study the solar wind’s effects on astronauts and their equipment. Equipped with five instruments, ERSA measures energetic particles from the Sun, galactic cosmic rays, neutrons, ions, and magnetic fields around the Gateway. Measuring these particles can tell us about the physics of radiation in the solar system, and understand the risks posed by radiation to human spacefarers and their hardware.

“Understanding the changing radiation environment around the Moon and at the Gateway is important if we are to understand the potential dangers astronauts will face and how to address them. It also helps us to understand and predict space weather across the Earth-Moon system,” said James Carpenter, ESA’s Exploration Science Coordinator.

Angelic halo orbit for Gateway

Video above: Gateway's path will follow a near-rectilinear halo orbit, also known as an angelic halo orbit, around the Moon. Video Credit: ESA.

Included in the suite is the Influence sur les Composants Avancés des Radiations de l'Espace, or ICARE-NG instrument, which measures ionizing radiation that can create brief spikes in voltage that can make electronics short-circuit. Another instrument, the European Active Dosimeter, measures the energy that would be deposited by radiation in living tissue to understand human radiation exposure.

The measurements from both HERMES and ERSA are made at time of impact, once the radiation has already arrived. But in the long term, the measurements will help NASA and ESA improve their models of space weather to better predict when such radiation could be on its way from the Sun, enabling better advanced warnings in the future.

Gateway is a vital part of the Artemis program. Through Artemis, NASA and its partners will learn to live, work, and conduct science on and around the Moon, creating a sustained human-robotic presence at Earth’s nearest neighbor. At the Moon, we will learn how to thrive on other worlds, preparing humanity for the next great voyage to Mars.

To learn more about NASA’s Artemis program, visit:

THEMIS (Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions During Substorms):

Images (mentioned), Video (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, by Miles Hatfield.


ESA tracks Chang'e-5 Moon mission


ESA - European Space Agency logo.

Nov. 19, 2020

Today, ESA’s ground stations are helping fetch rocks from the lunar surface; tomorrow, they will enable new missions that will make the Moon a routine destination.

Winter Moon

- Ground stations are used to communicate with spacecraft across the Solar System.

- ESA’s ground station network is uniquely equipped to support lunar exploration missions due to advanced technology and a global geography.

- In the next few weeks, ESA will support China’s Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission by relaying signals from the spacecraft during two critical phases.

- These ground stations are an important element in the Agency’s ambitious lunar exploration goals, supporting ESA, international partners and European industry.

ESA's Estrack network is a global system of ground stations providing communication between spacecraft and ESA’s ESOC mission control centre in Darmstadt, Germany.

Mission controllers use the large antennas to control their spacecraft and receive the data they send back, whether from Earth orbit, on the way to the Moon or the Sun, or further out in the Solar System.

ESA's Malargüe tracking station

“Our network of tracking stations has the capability to communicate with any type of mission in the Solar System,” says Simon Plum, the Head of Mission Operations at ESOC. “In the future, it will increasingly support the lunar missions of ESA and its partners.”

In November and December 2020, they will provide communication support to the Chinese Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission.

Chang’e: A Moon goddess and a jade rabbit

The Chang’e-5 mission is named after the Chinese Moon goddess, traditionally accompanied by a white or jade rabbit, and comprises a lunar orbiter, a lander and an ascent probe that will lift surface samples back into orbit for a return flight to Earth.  

It will collect approximately two kilograms of lunar samples – the first to be returned in 44 years. ESA will support the mission by tracking the spacecraft during two of the mission’s most critical phases, as well as provide on-call back-up for China’s own ground stations.

On 23 November, ESA’s Kourou station, located in French Guiana, will track Chang’e-5 for several hours shortly after it launches. During this early phase, it is important to determine exactly where the spacecraft is in order to establish a communication link and verify the health of the newly launched craft. Kourou station will provide a way for the Chinese mission control team at the Beijing Aerospace Control Centre to acquire data from the spacecraft and confirm the status of the mission and its orbit.

Graphic above: European ground stations provide tracking support to Chinese Chang'e-5 lunar mission.

“Every time one of our stations supports a mission, it increases our own experience and knowledge,” says Gerhard Billig, manager for the Agency’s support to Chang’e-5. “Everything we learn then makes us more capable for future ESA and partner missions.”

Around 15 December, as the spacecraft returns to Earth, ESA will catch signals from the spacecraft using Maspalomas station, operated by the Instituto Nacional de Tecnica Aerospacial (INTA) in Spain.

The data will help confirm the spacecraft’s trajectory during the critical hours just before it enters Earth’s atmosphere. Knowing exactly where, when and how the spacecraft enters the atmosphere is important for determining where on Earth it, and its precious cargo, will later land.

Supporting future lunar missions

The number, scope and complexity of lunar missions will only increase in the coming years. Ground stations must be up-to-date with the latest technologies and systems in order to ensure reliability and safety, particularly for missions involving human spaceflight. ESA is upgrading its ground stations to meet these evolving demands.

“Kourou station may soon become well known for supporting lunar missions,” says Pier Bargellini, responsible for ground facility operations at ESA.

Kourou tracking station

“The 15m antenna at Kourou uses state-of-the-art technology developed in Europe and its location near the equator makes it well-suited for tracking lunar missions. It is designed to provide high-performance services to ESA and partner missions and we are continuing to upgrade it in view of the upcoming lunar missions. It is completely unique for an antenna of its size.”

Supporting commercial activity at the Moon

To send lunar data back to Earth, you need high-performance ground stations, and constructing new stations is very expensive.

Right now, companies and start-ups planning to fly orbiters or landers to the Moon plan to use existing networks operated by space agencies such as ESA to communicate with their spacecraft after they leave Earth.

However, commercial operators – some with assistance from ESA – will also soon establish themselves as an option for lunar communications.

Lunar Ride and Phone Home Service

For example, ESA has partnered with Surrey Satellite Technology Limited for the development of Lunar Pathfinder, a commercial lunar orbiter that will communicate with spacecraft or landers at the Moon and relay their data back to ground stations on Earth. These stations will include ESA’s own network, which will complement new commercial deep-space ground stations.

The Moon across ESA

Lunar exploration relies on the extensive expertise that is on hand across ESA. As a new lunar economy emerges, it will create new opportunities involving robots, habitats and transportation, and proposed missions to the Moon share similar communication and navigation needs that could be satisfied using a constellation of lunar satellites.

Under the Agency’s ‘Moonlight’ initiative, ESA is exploring with industry the necessary technical solutions along with delivery models for the provision of lunar communication and navigation services.

Together with international and commercial partners, ESA’s ground station network and space communication expertise will be crucial elements in the future of lunar exploration.

Related links:

‘Moonlight’ initiative:

Lunar Pathfinder:

Instituto Nacional de Tecnica Aerospacial (INTA):

ESA's Estrack network:

ESOC mission control centre:

Images, Graphic, Text, Credits: ESA/U. Kugel/Claus Vogl/A. Chance/SSTL.


Creating chaos: Craters and collapse on Mars


ESA - Mars Express Mission patch.

Nov. 19, 2020

Mars Express

Elevation can be deceiving in satellite imagery of Mars, even when differences are extreme – as demonstrated by this image of Pyrrhae Regio from ESA’s Mars Express. A chunk of terrain has collapsed and dropped more than four kilometres below its surroundings, illustrating the incredible contrast and dynamism seen across the martian surface.

Chaotic terrain in Mars’ Pyrrhae Regio

This slice of Mars, seen here as imaged by Mars Express’ High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC), shows signs of various intriguing processes.

A scattering of impact craters, formed as incoming bodies from space collided with Mars’ surface, can be seen to the left of the frame; the floor of the largest and uppermost basin spans about 40 kilometres, and contains some fractures and markings that formed just after the crater itself. Hot, molten rock is thought to have been thrown up during the crater-forming collision, after which it cooled and settled to form the scar-like features visible here.

Perspective view of chaotic terrain in Mars’ Pyrrhae Regio

Towards the middle of the frame, the surface is relatively smooth and featureless – however, two broad channels have worked their way through the landscape, and can be seen as meandering, branching indentations in the surrounding terrain. These channels are reminiscent of so-called ‘sapping valleys’ on Earth, which form as water consistently seeps and flows through sediment to carve out a natural drainage network.

The valleys are attached at their rightward end to the real star of this image: a sunken, uneven, scarred patch of ground known as chaotic terrain.

Chaotic terrain, as the name suggests, looks irregular and jumbled, and is thought to form as sub-surface ice and sediment begins to melt and shift. This shifting layer causes the surface above to collapse – a collapse that can happen quickly and catastrophically as water drains away rapidly through the regolith (the near-surface layer of rocky planets). Ice can be triggered to melt by heating events such as volcanic lava flows, subsurface magmatism, impacts by large meteorites, or changes in climate.

Topographic view of Mars’ Pyrrhae Regio

In the chaotic terrain seen here, ice has melted, the resulting water drained away, and a number of disparate broken ‘blocks’ have been left standing in now-empty cavities (which once hosted ice). Remarkably, the floors of these cavities lie some four kilometres below the flatter ground near the craters to the left, as seen clearly in the associated topographic view – a colossal difference in height (for reference, the highest mountain peaks of the Pyrenees and the Alps top out at just over 3.4 km and 4.8 km, respectively).

Considering the broader landscape containing and surrounding Pyrrhae Regio, the chaotic nature of this area is unsurprising. To the west of this patch of ground lies one of the most extreme features in the Solar System: a colossal canyon system named Valles Marineris.

In context: Mars’ Pyrrhae Regio

Valles Marineris is roughly ten times longer and five times deeper than the Grand Canyon on Earth, and comprises myriad smaller rifts, channels, outflows, fractures and signs of flowing material (such as water, ice, lava or debris). It is home to many substantial chaotic terrains, including Aurorae Chaos and Erythraeum Chaos.

Valles Marineris is an unmissable scar on the face of Mars, and thought to have formed as the planet’s crust was stretched by nearby volcanic activity, causing it to rip and crack open before collapsing into the deep troughs we see today. These troughs have been further shaped and eroded by water flows, landslides, and other erosive processes, with spacecraft including Mars Express spying signs that water existed in parts of Valles Marineris in the relatively recent past (‘mere’ hundreds of millions of years ago).

Mars’ Pyrrhae Regio in 3D

As well as characterising the complex processes at play in standout features such as Valles Marineris, Mars Express – in orbit around the Red Planet since December of 2003 – has spent years imaging Mars’ surface, mapping its minerals, identifying the composition and circulation of its tenuous atmosphere, probing beneath its crust, and exploring how phenomena such as the solar wind, a stream of charged particles emanating from the Sun, interacts in the martian environment.

Related links:

Mars Express’ High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC):

Mars Express:

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

Best regards,

NASA Statement on NSF’s Planned Controlled Decommissioning of Arecibo Radio Telescope


Arecibo Observatory logo.

Nov. 19, 2020

On Nov. 18, NASA was informed by the National Science Foundation (NSF) that, after careful assessment and consideration, they have decided to decommission the 305m radio telescope at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, which recently sustained structural damage from failed cables. The planetary radar capability at Arecibo, funded by NASA’s Near-Earth Object (NEO) Observations Program, has served as one of two major planetary radar capabilities. It has allowed NASA to fully characterize the precise orbits, sizes, and shapes of some NEOs passing within radar range after they are discovered by wide-field optical telescope survey projects.

Image above: The Arecibo radio telescope has been used for many astronomical research projects, including searches and studies of pulsars, and mapping atomic and molecular gas in the Galaxy and the universe. The National Science Foundation announced for plans for a controlled decommissioning of the 305 meter radio telescope on Nov. 19 to protect the health and safety of those who work at and visit the observatory. Image Credits: National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, Cornell U., NSF.

For decades, the facility has been an important emblem of Puerto Rico’s commitment to international science research and education, and the discoveries enabled by Arecibo’s 305m radio telescope will continue to inspire the next generation of explorers. While the 305m radio telescope is being decommissioned, the Arecibo facility and its STEM education and other assets will continue.

While NASA was not directly involved in the investigation of what led to the observatory’s damage in August, the NSF communicated with stakeholders, including NASA, as their investigation proceeded. NASA respects the National Science Foundation’s decision to put the safety of those who work, visit, and study at the historic observatory above all else. NASA has facilitated some engineering assistance from NASA Centers at NSF’s request.

NASA’s Goldstone Observatory in California, another planetary radar, recently returned to full operations after successful delivery and testing of a new klystron tube for its high-power transmitter.  Radars such as those at Goldstone and Arecibo are used only to characterize known NEOs, not to discover previously unknown asteroids and comets, so NASA’s NEO search efforts are not impacted by the planned decommissioning of Arecibo’s 305m radio telescope.

Related articles:

Second cable breaks at Puerto Rico’s Arecibo telescope

Broken Cable Damages Arecibo Observatory

Related link:

Arecibo Observatory:

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


Cosmonauts Wrap Up Spacewalk at Station


ROSCOSMOS - Russian Federation patch.

Nov. 19, 2020

Expedition 64 Commander Sergey Ryzhikov and Flight Engineer Sergey Kud-Sverchkov of the Russian space agency Roscosmos have completed a spacewalk lasting 6 hours and 48 minutes.

The two cosmonauts opened the hatch to the Poisk module‘s airlock to begin the spacewalk at 10:12 a.m. EST. They re-entered the airlock and closed the hatch at 5 p.m. EST.

Image above: An external station camera captures spacewalkers (from left) Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov readying the orbiting lab for a new Russian module. Image Credit: NASA TV.

During the spacewalk, the duo inspected the Poisk airlock for leaks, relocated an antenna from the Pirs module to Poisk, retrieved hardware that measures space debris impacts, and repositioned an instrument used to measure the residue from thruster firings. Additionally, the team retrieved and installed an impact tray on the Zvezda service module and took photos of the plume deflectors. The cosmonauts deferred the task of replacing the fluid flow regulator on the Zarya module to a future spacewalk.

Cosmonauts spacewalk. Animation Credits: NASA TV/ROSCOSMOS

It was the 232nd spacewalk in support of International Space Station assembly, maintenance, and upgrades, the eighth spacewalk of 2020, and the first spacewalk for both Ryzhikov and Kud-Sverchkov.

Related article:

Cosmonauts Begin Spacewalk to Ready Station for New Module

Related links:

Expedition 64:

Poisk module:

Pirs module:

Zvezda service module:

Zarya module:

International Space Station (ISS):

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

Best regards,