"Early this morning, at 5:20 am EDT, MESSENGER captured this historic image of Mercury. This image is the first ever obtained from a spacecraft in orbit about the Solar System's innermost planet. Over the subsequent six hours, MESSENGER acquired an additional 363 images before downlinking some of the data to Earth. The MESSENGER team is currently looking over the newly returned data, which are still continuing to come down. Tomorrow, March 30, at 2 pm EDT, attend the NASA media telecon to view more images from MESSENGER's first look at Mercury from orbit."
Space & Planetary Science: March 2011 Archives
"Based on our review of the final performance reports from the involved contractors and discussions with NASA officials, we concluded that the performance results on the JWST Recovery Act activities fulfilled the intent of the Recovery Act, and for tasks that were not completed within the planned period of performance, delays were justified appropriately."
"Work has stopped on an alternative version of the instrument, with a pair of zoom-lens cameras, which would have provided additional capabilities for improved three-dimensional video. The installed Mastcam on the Mars Science Laboratory mission's Curiosity rover uses two fixed-focal-length cameras: a telephoto for one eye and wider angle for the other. Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, built the Mastcam and was funded by NASA last year to see whether a zoom version could be developed in time for testing on Curiosity."
"After a hibernation of about six months, the framing cameras on board NASA's Dawn spacecraft have again ventured a look into the stars. The spacecraft also powered up its visible and infrared mapping spectrometer, which investigates surface mineralogy, and the gamma ray and neutron detector, which detects elemental composition. The reactivation prepares the instruments for the May approach and July arrival at Vesta, Dawn's first port of call in the asteroid belt."
"On Thursday, March 24 at about 4 p.m. PDT (7 p.m. EDT), NASA's Stardust spacecraft will perform a final burn with its main engines. Twenty minutes after the engines run dry, the spacecraft's computer will command its transmitters off. They actively shut off their radios to preclude the remote chance that at some point down the road Stardust's transmitter could turn on and broadcast on a frequency being used by other operational spacecraft. Turning off the transmitter ensures that there will be no unintended radio interference in the future."
"On Thursday, March 24 at about 4 p.m. PDT (7 p.m. EDT), NASA's Stardust spacecraft will perform a final burn with its main engines. At first glance, the burn is something of an insignificant event. After all, the venerable spacecraft has executed 40 major flight path maneuvers since its 1999 launch, and between these main engines and the reaction control system, its rocket motors have collectively fired more than 2 million times. But the March 24 burn will be different from all others. This burn will effectively end the life of NASA's most traveled comet hunter."
Keith's 21 March 9:20 pm EDT note: This Tweet was just posted by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter HiRISE Team: "We've been quiet lately. But we have a good reason."
"After a safe mode event that lasted 144 hours, NASA's Kepler spacecraft returned to science data collection at 2:45 p.m. EDT Sunday, March 20. During the spacecraft's recovery from the safe mode event, the project team performed the spring quarterly roll and downloaded science data collected since Feb. 4 from the spacecraft's solid-state recorder. That data will be sent to the Kepler Science Operations Center at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., where the science team will evaluate it. An anomaly response team will continue to evaluate the spacecraft data to determine the cause of the safe mode event."
"In the face of declining budget projections, we as a community need to stand together and argue persuasively for NASA's program of planetary science and exploration. The decadal report can be a tool for helping us do that. It arose from our community, and it has the full weight of the National Research Council behind it. If we stay united, we can use it to argue effectively for a well-funded program that will give us the kinds of missions we all want to see in the years ahead. If our community fragments, though, we will be much less effective in arguing for planetary exploration over other budget priorities. Part of the process of letting the community learn more about the decadal survey is a series of town hall meetings that will be held around the country. These are being organized by the DPS. Here's the schedule as it now stands:"
Kepler Mission Manager Update - Safe Mode Event March 15, 2011
"Shortly after the safe mode entry, the team analyzed the spacecraft data and determined all subsystems remained healthy. During recovery actions, the Deep Space Network was used to downlink telemetry and began recovery of files to assist in the anomaly analysis. The team has since successfully reinitiated power to the primary SIB, confirmed its health and status, and also verified the new version of the NIC firmware had loaded correctly, and passed a health and safety check. The star trackers have been powered on and the spacecraft has been commanded to standby orientation, with solar arrays aligned toward the sun and Kepler pointed to ecliptic north. Updates will be posted as the team makes progress in the recovery"
"NASA's MESSENGER probe has become the first spacecraft to enter orbit about Mercury. At 9:10 p.m. EDT, engineers in the MESSENGER Mission Operations Center at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md., received radiometric signals confirming nominal burn shutdown and successful insertion of the MESSENGER probe into orbit around the planet Mercury."
Keith's note: Updates on Twitter at MercuryToday
"As spring continues to unfold at Saturn, April showers on the planet's largest moon, Titan, have brought methane rain to its equatorial deserts, as revealed in images captured by NASA's Cassini spacecraft. Extensive rain from large cloud systems, spotted by Cassini's cameras in late 2010, has apparently darkened the surface of the moon. The best explanation is these areas remained wet after methane rainstorms."
Keith's note: According to NASA sources, NASA is planning to kill 2 of the 4 US-led instruments which it originally selected to provide as part of its collaboration with ESA on the ESA/NASA Solar Orbiter mission. This is being done due to launch vehicle cost growth. As such, NASA is planning to cut 50% of its science contribution to the mission, and short-changing the overall benefit to the U.S. from this $400M collaboration.
"After more than a dozen laps through the inner solar system and six planetary flybys, NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft will move into orbit around Mercury on at around 9 p.m. EDT on March 17, 2011. The durable spacecraft -- carrying seven science instruments and fortified against the blistering environs near the Sun -- will be the first to orbit the innermost planet."
"Chasma Boreale, a long, flat-floored valley, cuts deep into Mars' north polar icecap. Its walls rise about 4,600 feet, or 1,400 meters, above the floor. Where the edge of the ice cap has retreated, sheets of sand are emerging that accumulated during earlier ice-free climatic cycles. Winds blowing off the ice have pushed loose sand into dunes and driven them down-canyon in a westward direction."
"While some candidate craters were observed that appeared in LROC data but not in Lunar Orbiter data, these were all very near the edge of discernable feature size and are almost certainly explained by various differences between the images (e.g. sun angle or viewing geometry). While our initial search did not find any discernable new cratering, we have shown that data from the original analog Lunar Orbiter tapes, as recovered by the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery project, possesses the characteristics necessary to discern new craters at reasonably small sizes. If the entire Lunar Orbiter data set was recovered in this manner it may be possible for future researchers to apply automated methods to detect changes with much better chances of success."
"To enable Voyager 1's Low Energy Charged Particle instrument to gather these data, the spacecraft performed a maneuver on March 7 that it hadn't done for 21 years, except in a preparatory test last month. Voyager engineers performed a test roll and hold on Feb. 2 for two hours, 15 minutes. When data from Voyager 1 were received on Earth some 16 hours later, the mission team verified the test was successful and the spacecraft had no problem in reorienting itself and locking back onto its guide star, Alpha Centauri."
"The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter acquired this color image on March 9, 2011, of "Santa Maria" crater, showing NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity perched on the southeast rim. The rover is the bluish speck at about the four o'clock position on the crater rim (with indicator arrow). North is up. Rover tracks are visible to the west of the crater."
The Occurrence Rate of Earth Analog Planets Orbiting Sunlike Stars, NASA JPL via arXiv.org
"Kepler is a space telescope that searches Sun-like stars for planets. Its major goal is to determine nEarth, the fraction of Sunlike stars that have planets like Earth. When a planet 'transits' or moves in front of a star, Kepler can measure the concomitant dimming of the starlight. From analysis of the first four months of those measurements for over 150,000 stars, Kepler's science team has determined sizes, surface temperatures, orbit sizes and periods for over a thousand new planet candidates. Here, we show that 1.4% to 2.7% of stars like the Sun are expected to have Earth analog planets, based on the Kepler data release of Feb 2011."
"Ten days from now - on March 17 - the MESSENGER spacecraft will execute a 15-minute maneuver that will place it into orbit about Mercury, making it the first craft ever to do so, and initiating a one-year science campaign to understand the innermost planet. Starting today, antennas from each of the three Deep Space Network (DSN) ground stations will begin a round-the-clock vigil, allowing flight control engineers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md., to monitor MESSENGER on its final approach to Mercury."
"The 2013 Decadal Survey will provide an outstanding science program for the next decade building on our strong foundation of success in planetary science. The National Research Council will release the Survey on Monday, March 7, at 5:30 pm Central time. The National Research Council (NRC) conducts studies that provide a science community consensus on key questions posed by NASA and other U.S. Government agencies. The broadest of these studies in NASA's areas of research are decadal surveys. As the name implies, NASA and its partners ask the NRC once each decade to look out ten or more years into the future and prioritize research areas, observations, and notional missions to make those observations."
"Space exploration has become a worldwide venture, and international collaboration has the potential to enrich the program in ways that benefit all participants. The program therefore relies more strongly than ever before on international participation, presenting many opportunities for collaboration with other nations. Most notably, the ambitious and complex Mars Sample Return campaign is critically dependent on a long-term and enabling collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA)."
"A new report from the National Research Council recommends a suite of planetary science flagship missions for the decade 2013-2022 that could provide a steady stream of important new discoveries about the solar system. However, if NASA's budget over that decade cannot support all of these missions, the agency should preserve smaller scale missions in its New Frontiers and Discovery programs first and delay some or all of the recommended large-scale missions, the report says."
"Planetary scientists would love to have some samples collected on Mars for delivery back on Earth, and they're itching to get a closer look at Europa, a moon of Jupiter that may harbor a hidden ocean and perhaps life as well. But they might be stymied during the decade to come, due to the federal government's tightening financial circumstances. The Mars and Europa missions are the top priorities for flagship robotic missions emerging from a big-picture scientific assessment known as the Decadal Survey. Over the past couple of years, the survey's organizers have received input from more than 1,600 planetary scientists, and the final results were released today in the form of a National Research Council report titled "Visions and Voyages."
"The decadal-survey committee's recommendations, released on 7 March at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston, Texas, relied partly on President Barack Obama's 2011 budget request, which projected that NASA's annual planetary-science funding would grow from its current allocation of $1.36 billion to more than $1.6 billion by 2015. But Obama's 2012 budget foresees that funding dropping to $1.2 billion in 2016. On 3 March, planetary-sciences division director James Green told the NASA Advisory Council's science committee that this would create indefinite delays for both the Mars and Europa missions."