Space & Planetary Science: September 2015 Archives

NASA Selects Investigations for Future Key Planetary Mission

"NASA has selected five science investigations for refinement during the next year as a first step in choosing one or two missions for flight opportunities as early as 2020. The submitted proposals would study Venus, near-Earth objects and a variety of asteroids. Each investigation team will receive $3 million to conduct concept design studies and analyses."

Venus and a bizarre metal asteroid are leading destinations for low-cost NASA missions, Science

"NEOCam competed in the last round of Discovery, but it had some competition from outside NASA: the B612 foundation. The nonprofit organization, dedicated to finding hazardous asteroids, said it would raise private money to build its own space telescope, Sentinel. But B612 has struggled to meet its fundraising goals and scheduled objectives, and, earlier this week, it was reported that NASA had ended a cooperative agreement with B612. Hap McSween, a planetary scientist at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, says NEOCam's selection is not unrelated to the end of the B612 agreement. "The choice of NEOCam here is perhaps a reflection of harsh reality," McSween says. "If this is going to happen, NASA is going to have to pay for it."

Keith's note: Isn't it a litte odd that the decision to cancel the Space Act Agreement with B612 for its "Sentinel" asteroid hunting mission suddenly came to light on the eve of Discovery mission finalists being announced -- and that JPL's asteroid hunting "NEOCam" mission is among those selected for further work?. These spacecraft even look a lot alike. JPL folks clearly saw Sentinel as competition - even if it was Sentinel team that first pushed the envelope on this whole idea. JPLers were pushing Lindley Johnson and others at NASA HQ to end the Sentinel agreement. At this point Johnson could use all the help he can get given how miserably his organization's NEO work has been progressing.

NASA OIG Report: NASA's Efforts to Identify Near-Earth Objects and Mitigate Hazards (2014)

"The NASA Authorization Act of 2005 required the Agency to implement a "program to detect, track, catalogue, and characterize the physical characteristics of near-Earth objects equal to or greater than 140 meters in diameter" and established a goal of cataloging 90 percent of these objects by 2020. However, even with a ten-fold increase in the NEO Program budget in the past 5 years - from $4 million in fiscal year (FY) 2009 to $40 million in FY 2014 - NASA estimates that it has identified only about 10 percent of all asteroids 140 meters and larger. Moreover, given its current pace and resources, the Agency has stated that it will not meet the goal of identifying 90 percent of such objects by 2020."

NASA Cancels Space Act Agreement With B612 Foundation, earlier post

NASA Terminates Space Act Agreement with B612 Foundation for Sentinel Spacecraft

"NASA spokesmen Dwayne Brown and Dave Steitz confirmed via email that NASA terminated the agreement with B612. Steitz explained that B612 had not met an important milestone in the SAA -- starting Sentinel's development -- and NASA therefore terminated the agreement because "due to limited resources, NASA can no longer afford to reserve funds" to support the project. "NASA believes it is in the best interest of both parties to terminate this agreement but remains open to future opportunities to collaborate with the B612 Foundation," he added."

Keith's note: This certainly sucks. Odd that NASA gave up this easily. Curiously NASA is promoting a #JourneyToMars program with a fantasy budget and rockets whose launch dates slip year after year. But wait: B612 was going to pay for the spacecraft. NASA only had to use it.

If you read the actual Space Act Agreement between NASA and B612 these two articles pretty much rive everything else:

"ARTICLE 3. GATES Four Gates are identified that constitute milestones in the determination of the benefit to NASA from the Sentinel Mission. In the event that the Sentinel Mission does not fulfill a Gate, NASA will assess the impact thereof to the NASA benefit from the Sentinel Mission to determine whether or not to proceed with this Agreement. Any follow-on agreements or modifications agreed to by the Parties in the course of implementing the Sentinel Mission as described herein shall be fully incorporated in this Agreement and shall constitute a modification of this Agreement in Accordance with ARTICLE 24 Modifications.

ARTICLE 6. FINANCIAL OBLIGATIONS There will be no transfer of funds between the Parties under this Agreement and each Party will fund its own participation. All activities under or pursuant to this Agreement are subject to the availability of funds, and no provision of this Agreement shall be interpreted to require obligation or payment of funds in violation of the Anti-Deficiency Act,(31 U.S.C. ยง 1341)."

So B612 pays for, builds, launches, and operates Sentinel - and all NASA needs to do is provides the things needed to use it, collect data etc. NASA can walk away from this agreement at any time and B612 does not get a penny from NASA. I can tell you that there are others (i.e. traditional space mission vendors like APL, JPL, etc.) who tell people that they'd be building a spacecraft like Sentinel (but paid for by NASA) if it were not for the fact that NASA keeps saying "No, no we'll just use Sentinel".

Keith's note: The result of the closed door Humans Orbiting Mars report has been released. According to this report missions to Mars only orbit the planet by 2033. Crews would control robots on the surface. If there's enough money then the report suggests a landing in 2039 but they'd only stay on the surface for 24 days. Long duration missions on the surface of Mars would not start until 2043 a decade after NASA's current (but unfunded) plans. All of the missions in this report require hardware that has not been designed or budgeted for (just like NASA). NASA will be required to walk away from ISS in 2024 so as to free up money for Mars - and the report assumes that human spaceflight budgets will be flat with growth for inflation for several decades. This plan puts humans on Mars a quarter of a century away.

NASA is already challenged to mount a program that takes 20 years - Planetary Society wants to stretch that even further - indeed, in their plan serious surface expeditions would have to wait nearly 30 years. Of course there's always the magic unicorn of foreign partners, commercial donations, or other sources of money (not spelled out) which might pop up and make things happen earlier - or maybe not. Oh yes: this plan makes no mention of the two year slip in launching the first crewed Orion mission which should push everything to the right by a year or two.

In summary the Planetary Society has taken NASA's various plans, thrown them up in the air, rearranged the pieces and tried to do things on the cheap. The net result is an unrealistic delay in getting humans to the surface based on hardware that is not even budgeted for by NASA. I am trying to picture how Congress is going to fund a program for 20 years that almost puts humans on Mars.

Yesterday the Planetary Society posted an article on the Mars water news which included this gem: "This is one of many reasons I'm glad that The Planetary Society is advocating an orbit-first approach to human exploration. If we keep our filthy meatbag bodies in space and tele-operate sterile robots on the surface, we'll avoid irreversible contamination of Mars -- and obfuscation of the answer to the question of whether we're alone in the solar system -- for a little while longer. Maybe just long enough for robots to taste Martian water or discover Martian life."

It is quite obvious that the Planetary Society would be quite happy if it took longer to put humans on Mars than NASA and others would like it to take since "Filthy meatbag bodies" don't belong on Mars - if at all possible.

Destination Phobos: 'Humans Orbiting Mars' report goes public, Geekwire

"Critics, including NASA Watch's Keith Cowing, say the Planetary Society's "orbit-first" blueprint is too timid and relies on hardware that NASA has not yet budgeted for. "I am trying to picture how Congress is going to fund a program for 20 years that almost puts humans on Mars," Cowing wrote on Tuesday. [Planetary Society's Casey] Dreier, however, was doubtful that a more accelerated schedule would draw enough political support. "It'd be great if we could do it in 10 years," he said. "But that will take a lot of money over not a lot of years, and I don't see any pathway to making that happen."

- Planetary Society Does Not Want Humans on Mars, earlier post
- Not Everyone Wants To Be The Martian, earlier post

Did NASA time its Mars announcement to coincide with 'The Martian'?, Yahoo

"Talk about some otherworldly timing ... or was it? Did NASA time its Mars announcement to coincide with the film's release? "No, the timing was dictated by the publication of the Nature Geoscience article, which was released today," Laurie Cantillo, a NASA spokeswoman, told Yahoo News. It would be a bit hard to imagine the space agency sitting on major Mars news in order for it to collide with a Hollywood movie."

Keith's note: 1. The research paper was submitted to Nature Geoscience months ago and the EPSC sessions were organized months ago as well - before any release date was chosen for "The Martian"
2. The release date for the movie was set months ago by movie marketing people who have no idea what this announcement is even about.

Were NASA and "The Martian" wrong to leverage this coincidence with cross-promotions? Heavens no. They have been cross-promoting this movie and NASA exploration activities for months so they'd look rather lame - and kinda stupid - if they did not take the time to cross-promote this blatantly obvious big news about Mars when NASA announced the press event last week. Given the glacial pace at which science papers crawl toward release and NASA's quirky way of dealing with embargoed science results there's no way any Hollywood marketing person could - or would - adjust a movie release to an indeterminate and ever shifting date in the future.

NASA PAO and "The Martian" are paying a lot of attention to each other right now - each for their own reasons. That said, the net result (one would hope) of this interaction is that an immense audience has a great time at the movies and that they leave the theater with something inspiring lingering in their minds about exploration.

Oh yes: this video was just posted on Twitter - a salute to NASA from Matt Damon.

NASA Confirms Evidence That Liquid Water Flows on Today's Mars, NASA

"New findings from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) provide the strongest evidence yet that liquid water flows intermittently on present-day Mars. Using an imaging spectrometer on MRO, researchers detected signatures of hydrated minerals on slopes where mysterious streaks are seen on the Red Planet. These darkish streaks appear to ebb and flow over time. They darken and appear to flow down steep slopes during warm seasons, and then fade in cooler seasons. They appear in several locations on Mars when temperatures are above minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 23 Celsius), and disappear at colder times."

Spectral evidence for hydrated salts in recurring slope lineae on Mars

"We find evidence for hydrated salts at all four locations in the seasons when recurring slope lineae are most extensive, which suggests that the source of hydration is recurring slope lineae activity. The hydrated salts most consistent with the spectral absorption features we detect are magnesium perchlorate, magnesium chlorate and sodium perchlorate. Our findings strongly support the hypothesis that recurring slope lineae form as a result of contemporary water activity on Mars."

Delirious Rover Hallucinates Water On Mars, The Onion

"Earlier this morning, mission control received an enthusiastic transmission from Curiosity indicating that it had detected a significant volume of cold, clear, crystal-blue water capable of supporting life," said project scientist Ashwin Vasavada, adding that the demented rover then made a beeline for what its strained, dust-clogged sensors determined to be a sparkling desert oasis encircled in waving palm fronds."

NASA to Announce Mars Mystery Solved

"**Nature Geoscience has Embargoed Details until 8 a.m. PDT/11 a.m. EDT Sept. 28)**

NASA will detail a major science finding from the agency's ongoing exploration of Mars during a news briefing at 8:30 a.m. PDT (11:30 a.m. EDT) on Monday, Sept. 28 at the James Webb Auditorium at NASA Headquarters in Washington. The event will be broadcast live on NASA Television and the agency's website."

Keith's 24 Sep note: As is standard practice NASA JPL and researchers have already provided advance information on this news to hand-picked news media - but not to others. But let's try and figure out what the big 'ol mystery is. Lujendra Ojha is one of the presenters at the press event and he's totally into recurring slope lineae on Mars using MRO. Alfred McEwen is a frequent co-author. And they have been trying to figure out how these features form on Mars. One would assume that they have figured that out.

NASA Mars Orbiters See Clues to Possible Water Flows (2014)

"We still don't have a smoking gun for existence of water in RSL [recurring slope lineae], although we're not sure how this process would take place without water," said Lujendra Ojha, a graduate student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, and lead author of two new reports about these flows. He originally discovered them while an undergraduate at the University of Arizona, Tucson, three years ago, in images from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter."

Recurring slope lineae in equatorial regions of Mars, Nature (2013)

"The presence of liquid water is a requirement of habitability on a planet. Possible indicators of liquid surface water on Mars include intermittent flow-like features observed on sloping terrains. These recurring slope lineae are narrow, dark markings on steep slopes that appear and incrementally lengthen during warm seasons on low-albedo surfaces."

Keith's 24 Sep update: A NASAWatch reader artfully tipped us off to this session of the European Planetary Science Congress 2015 in France on Monday, 28 September - and one paper authored by several of the participants (McEwen and Ojha) in the NASA press conference:

17:00-17:15 EPSC2015-786 Recurring Slope Lineae on Mars: Atmospheric Origin?, AS McEwen, M Chojnacki, C Dundas, L Ojha, M Masse, E Schaefer, and C Leung

"Recurring Slope Lineae (RSL) are seasonal flows or seeps on warm Martian slopes. Observed gradual or incremental growth, fading, and yearly recurrence can be explained by seasonal seeps of water, which is probably salty. The origin of the water is not understood, but several observations indicate a key role for atmospheric processes. If sufficient deliquescent salts are present at these locations, the water could be entirely of atmospheric origin."

Hinners Point Above Floor of Marathon Valley on Mars

"The summit takes its informal name as a tribute to Noel Hinners (1935-2014). For NASA's Apollo program, Hinners played important roles in selection of landing sites on the moon and scientific training of astronauts. He then served as NASA associate administrator for space science, director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, director of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA chief scientist and associate deputy administrator of NASA. Subsequent to responsibility for the Viking Mars missions while at NASA, he spent the latter part of his career as vice president for flight systems at Lockheed Martin, where he had responsibility for the company's roles in development and operation of NASA's Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey, Phoenix Mars Lander, Stardust and Genesis missions."

Noel Hinners, earlier post

"He did everything you could do in and around NASA once," Cowing said."

Keith's note: Noel would be totally humbled to learn of this.

Kickstarter Success for Xtronaut Game Supports Space-Science Outreach Programs

"Dante Lauretta, Leader of the NASA OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission and University of Arizona Professor, combined his expertise in space mission planning and technology with his passion for strategy gaming to create Xtronaut: The Game of Solar System Exploration. The Xtronaut game captures the various challenges and excitement of planning a space mission. Lauretta co-founded Xtronaut Enterprises with space entrepreneur Michael Lyon to increase awareness of OSIRIS-REx and other space missions through entertainment and education programs. They launched a Kickstarter campaign to support the game on September 12, 2015, and have exceeded their funding goal of $15,000 with over 300 backers."

Kickstarter campaign

NAS Report: Review of the MEPAG Report on Mars Special Regions

"At NASA's request, the community-based Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG) established the Special Regions Science Analysis Group (SR-SAG2) in October 2013 to examine the quantitative definition of a Special Region and proposed modifications to it, as necessary, based upon the latest scientific results. Review of the MEPAG Report on Mars Special Regions reviews the conclusions and recommendations contained in MEPAG's SR-SAG2 report and assesses their consistency with current understanding of both the Martian environment and the physical and chemical limits for the survival and propagation of microbial and other life on Earth. This report provides recommendations for an update of the planetary protection requirements for Mars Special Regions."



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