Space & Planetary Science: December 2015 Archives

Making the cut: CRISPR genome-editing technology shows its power, Science

"[CRISPR] was conceived after a yogurt company in 2007 identified an unexpected defense mechanism that its bacteria use to fight off viruses. A birth announcement came in 2012, followed by crucial first steps in 2013 and a massive growth spurt last year. Now, it has matured into a molecular marvel, and much of the worldnot just biologistsis taking notice of the genome-editing method CRISPR, Science's 2015 Breakthrough of the Year."

"For the second year in a row, the public weighed in through the Internet, voting for its top discovery while the Breakthrough team was hammering out its choices. High on the list, the results mirrored Science staffers' own deliberations. CRISPR surged to an early lead, as high-profile meetings and magazine articles focused public attention on the genome-editing technique. Pluto, a media darling in July when the New Horizons probe swooped past it en route to points beyond, was a distant second. But the dwarf planet rallied, as New Horizons scientists blitzed Twitter with get-out-the-vote tweets. When the final returns were in, Pluto finished comfortably ahead of CRISPR in the popular vote."

Keith's note: NASA used its 13.5 million followers on Twitter @NASA in a last minute effort to stuff the ballot box so as to give the impression that the nation thought that Pluto was the most important breakthrough of the year. Luckily this was just a poll - a skewed one at that. The editors of Science clearly saw through this and named CRISPR as this year's breakthrough.

Dear NASA: Some Things Are More Important Than You, earlier post

"CRISPR was leading Pluto in the Science magazine poll until NASA decided to skew the results by using its 13.5 million follower Twitter account to tell people to vote for Pluto. Just because NASA can use its social media presence to make a loud impact does not necessarily mean that it should automatically do so - without exercising some strategic thought to decide if it is truly the best use of that power. NASA should focus on explaining the whole #JourneyToMars thing, spreading planetary climate change information, education, advanced technology, etc. and let the biomedical "breakthroughs" have their day in the sun. New Horizons will never save a single human life. CRISPR will."

James Webb Space Telescope Project on Track but May Benefit from Improved Contractor Data to Better Understand Costs, GAO

"JWST continues to meet its cost commitments, but unreliable contractor performance data may pose a risk to project management. To help manage the project and account for new risks, project officials conducted a cost risk analysis of the prime contract. ... GAO found that while NASA's cost risk analysis substantially met best practices for cost estimating, officials do not plan to periodically update it. ... Further, the project does not have an independent surveillance mechanism, such as the Defense Contract Management Agency, to help ensure data anomalies are corrected by the contractor before being incorporated into larger cost analyses, as GAO recommended in 2012. As a result, the project is relying partially on unreliable information to inform its decision making and overall cost status."

ESA and Arianespace Sign James Webb Space Telescope Launch Contract

"The JWST is a joint project of NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency. Europe's contribution includes the Ariane 5 launch, along with two of the four state-of-the-art science instruments optimized for infrared observation of the Universe, and support for scientific operations."

Lockheed Martin Delivers NASA's InSight Spacecraft to Launch Site

"InSight was previously scheduled to ship to California in early January, but delivery was moved three and a half weeks early to provide more time at the launch site for the integration of the seismometer instrument (SEIS) developed by the French Space Agency, CNES."

Mars InSight Spacecraft Shipped to California for March Launch, NASA

"A vacuum leak detected during testing of the seismometer was repaired last week in France and is undergoing further testing."

Payload Problems May Delay Mars InSight Launch (Update), earlier post

"Consideration is being given to delaying the launch of NASA's Mars InSight lander mission. The problem has to do with the French seismometer. There is a persistent leak inside the seismometer that has been hard to fix."

Congress: NASA must not only go to Europa, it must land, Ars Technica

"NASA's administrator, Charles Bolden, has accepted the Europa mission only grudgingly. When NASA didn't ask for Europa funding in its 2013 or 2014 budgets, Culberson gave it a total of more than $120 million. Finally, in its fiscal year 2015 budget request, NASA acquiesced and created a Europa program. The president's budget called for $15 million to begin preliminary studies. Culberson appropriated $100 million. For fiscal year 2016, NASA requested $30 million. It got nearly six times that. Now that NASA has accepted an orbital mission to Europa, the biggest point of contention has been a lander. During a November interview with Ars, Bolden explained why he didn't want to tackle such an ambitious mission. "My scientific community, the people who do mission planning, say we need to go and do a little research with the first mission to Europa to determine whether that's a place we want to send a lander," Bolden said. "That's the point of our big disagreement with Congressman Culberson right now. He wants a multibillion dollar Europa mission that has a lander on the first flight and everything. Our belief is that that is imprudent from a scientific perspective."

Brine Deposits Are The Source of Ceres' Bright Spots

"Bright spots seen by NASA's Dawn spacecraft on the surface of dwarf planet Ceres are likely salt deposits, a paper published Dec. 9 in Nature says. Ceres has more than 130 bright areas, and most of them are associated with impact craters. Observations from Dawn's Framing Camera suggest the occurrence of salts originating from Ceres' interior. These salts are consistent with a type called magnesium sulfate."

Japan's Akatsuki Is Orbiting Venus

"The nail-biting maneuver that sent Japan's Akatsuki spacecraft into orbit around Venus this week is being celebrated by NASA scientists, eager to learn more about the atmosphere and climate of Earth's enigmatic sister planet. At about 7 p.m. EST on Sunday, Dec. 6, the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS) of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) commanded the climate orbiter to fire four thrusters, aimed at nudging the spacecraft into orbit around Venus. About a half hour later, JAXA/ISAS announced that the small probe had successfully achieved an elliptical orbit around Venus."

A New View of Prometheus

Close Up View of Prometheus

"NASA's Cassini spacecraft spied details on the pockmarked surface of Saturn's moon Prometheus (86 kilometers, or 53 miles across) during a moderately close flyby on Dec. 6, 2015. This view looks towards the anti-Saturn side of Prometheus. North on Prometheus is up. The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera."

Keith's note: On 10 January 2008 Sir Edmund Hillary, one of two humans to first stand atop Mt. Everest died. I sent Alan Stern, then AA for NASA's Science Mission Directorate an email: "I hope you name a new, large feature on Mercury after Edmund Hillary - and Tenzing Norgay..." Stern promptly sent an email to MESSENGER PI Sean Solomon saying "Sean-As you may have seen in the past few hours, Sir Edmund Hillary died today. Let's name prominent features for him and Tenzing Norgay on Mercury. It's ALL about exploration." Solomon concurred. Eventually it became clear that the IAU only wanted to name things on Mercury after painters for some unexplained reason.

Flash forward to July 2015 - mountain ranges on Pluto have been provisionally named "Hillary Montes" and "Norgay Montes". According to the Washington Post "For many years, we referred to Pluto as the Everest of planetary exploration," New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern said in a statement. "It's fitting that the two climbers who first summited Earth's highest mountain, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, now have their names on this new Everest." I hope the names stick. That said, who first suggested it to Stern? Just sayin'.

Mountaineering on Pluto

- The Rough Guide to Solar System Mountaineering, io9
- Mountaineering and Climbing on Mars, SpaceRef

Keith's 3 Dec 10:33 am ET note: Consideration is being given to delaying the launch of NASA's Mars InSight lander mission. The problem has to do with the French seismometer. There is a persistent leak inside the seismometer that has been hard to fix. Given that this payload is one of the two prime functions of InSight if the issue is not resolved in the next month or so then the launch will be slipped until the next favorable Mars launch window opens. I am awaiting a formal statement from NASA PAO.

NASA Mars InSight Team Addressing Vacuum Leak on Key Science Instrument, NASA

"A key science instrument that will be carried aboard NASA's Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) spacecraft being prepared for launch in March 2016 is experiencing a leak in the vacuum container carrying its main sensors. The sensors are part of an instrument called the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), which is provided by the French Space Agency (CNES)."

NASA Mars mission suffers problem with key instrument, Nature

"Technicians have detected a small leak in the vacuum-sealed sphere that holds the instrument's three seismometers, NASAWatch reported and NASA confirmed on 3 December. The leak must be fixed for the mission to accomplish its science goals. CNES engineers are working to repair it before shipping the instrument to the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California to be installed in the spacecraft and tested."

Hawaiian court revokes permit for planned mega-telescope, Nature

"Hawaii's supreme court has ruled that the construction permit for the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) atop the mountain of Mauna Kea is invalid. The 2 December decision is a major blow to the international consortium backing the US$1.5-billion telescope, and a win for the Native Hawaiians who have protested its construction on what they regard as a sacred summit. Hawaii's Board of Land and Natural Resources should not have approved the permit in 2011, the court said, because it did so before protestors could air their side in a contested case hearing. "Quite simply, the Board put the cart before the horse when it issued the permit," the court decision reads. "Accordingly, the permit cannot stand." It is unclear whether and how the TMT will move forward given the new ruling."

Thirty Meter Telescope Selects Mauna Kea, earlier post



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This page is an archive of entries in the Space & Planetary Science category from December 2015.

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