20 Percent Budget Cut for NASA Planetary Science

Money for the Senate Launch System (SLS) has siphoned off funding for the things that NASA does best – Planetary Science Missions. Examples of these over the past three decades include:

  • Viking I and II Mars Landers looked for life in 1976
  • Galileo was launched in 1989 and plunged into Jupiter’s crushing atmosphere on September of 2003 to protect the possible ocean on the moon Europa.
  • The Ulysses Solar Polar Explorer was launched in 1990 and ceased operation in 2009
  • Mars Global Surveyor photographed Mars from 1997 through 2006.
  • MESSENGER was launched in 2004 and arrived in orbit around Mercury in March 0f 2011 after three flybys.
  • The Cassini-Huygens Mission to Saturn arrived in 2004 to Study Saturn and the moon Titan. Exploration continues.
  • Phoenix Mars Lander explored the Martian Polar Region in 2008

The money has been saved for the SLS and building rockets, the things for which NASA is worst:

  • X-33 Venture Star – 1996 to 2001 – 1.2 Billion – Canceled
  • DC-X Delta Clipper – 1991 to 1995 – Transferred to NASA – 1996 -Canceled
  • Constellation and Ares I – 2005 to 2010 – 10 Billion – Canceled

Low Down on Vesta

The South Pole of the Asteroid Vesta
Image Credit: NASA / JPLCalTech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA

The Dawn spacecraft is beginning to wrap up its mission surveying Vesta. It completed the 70 day Low Altitude Mapping Orbit (LAMO) portion of its mission in December, January and February. The mission has been so smooth that the 40 days of reserve observation time have not been used. They will now be applied to the low altitude study of the composition of the surface and mapping of the gravity field. Dawn is currently about 210 kilometers above the surface.

We will discuss some of these low altitude images here. For a full description of the Dawn mission, see here (pdf). See also the nssphoenix articles on the mission, orbital capture, the rotation of Vesta, and previous low altitude images.

Below is a list of key dates for Dawn:

  • Launch – September 27, 2007
  • Mars gravity assist – February, 2009
  • Vesta arrival – July, 2011
  • Vesta departure – July, 2012
  • Ceres arrival – February 2015
  • End of primary mission – July 2015

In January, scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, completed models of the average global temperatures on the asteroid Vesta, and concluded that it is cold enough that ice could exist below the surface of the poles (see the article in the January 2012 issue of the journal Icarus).

Vesta is the second largest asteroid (after Ceres) in the belt between Mars and Jupiter. However, because of the axial tilt (27 degrees compared to Earth at 23 degrees), there are likely to be no locations where ice would remain frozen on the surface. This includes the 480 kilometer wide crater at the south pole (image above).

Below, left is Severina crater, a relatively young crater with sharp edges. It is approximately 25 kilometers in diameter located inc Vesta’s Rheasilvia quadrangle (see map at bottom), near Vesta’s south pole. On the rim is a newer small crater with sharp features.

Below, right is an older crater, degraded along the rim from bombardment from space. Many smaller young fresh craters pockmark the area, both inside and outside the old crater. The image was taken from an altitude of 272 kilometers, and is located in Vesta’s Oppia quadrangle.

Severina Crater on Vesta
Image Credit: NASA/ JPL-Caltech/ UCLA/ MPS/ DLR/ IDA

Smoothed Crater
Smoothed Crater on Vesta
Image Credit: NASA/ JPL-Caltech/ UCLA/ MPS/ DLR/ IDA

Below, left is Cornelia crater. Cornelia is a very young crater, about 15 kilometers in diameter, and located in Vesta’s Numisia quadrangle. The rim has partially collapsed, and the smooth surrounding area indicates that a large amount of fine-grained material was ejected during formation. The slumping material inside the crater is consistent with the fine-grained material in the ejecta.

Below, right, is a high resolution image of the surface in Vesta’s Oppia quadrangle, taken from an altitude of about 190 kilometers. Resolution is about 17.5 meters per pixel. The image is saturated with large and small craters, accumulated over billions of years. Sharp edged craters are young, and blurred, smoothed craters are old. Young craters are on top.

Cornelia Crater on Vesta
Image Credit: NASA/ JPL-Caltech/ UCLA/ MPS/ DLR/ IDA

High Resolution
High Resolution Surface on Vesta
Image Credit: NASA/ JPL-Caltech/ UCLA/ MPS/ DLR/ IDA

Map of Vesta
Quadrangle Maps for the Asteroid Vesta
Image Credit: NASA/ JPL-Caltech/ UCLA/ MPS/ DLR/ IDA

Above is a quadrangle map of Vesta, showing the locations of quadrangles referred to in the article here. Additional maps can be found here.

Juno Adjusts Course to Jupiter

Juno Spacecraft Exploring Jupiter
Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

The Juno Spacecraft was launched toward Jupiter on 5 August 2011, and made its first planned trajectory adjustment Wednesday. Over the course of the next five years, a dozen additional corrections are expected before arriving at Jupiter for a year long exploration.

The thrusters fired for 25 minutes and changed the speed by 1.2 meters per second. In August of 2012, Juno will make the first of two adjustments prior to a flyby of Earth for a gravity assist.

For additional information, consult the Juno website.


Juno Mission to Jupiter – Launch

Juno T-Minus 90
Juno Spacecraft Aboard Atlas V 551 at T-Minus 90 Minutes
Image Credit: NASA TV

The countdown for the launch of the Juno mission has reached t-Minus 40 minutes and counting. Fueling is complete and topping is ongoing. Ahead are several built in holds prior to launch at 8:34 AM Phoenix time (1534 UTC).

Weather for Launch
Weather for the Juno Spacecraft Launch
Image Credit: Kennedy Space Center

The weather at Cape Canaveral is perfect.

The countdown has reached T-Minus 35 minutes and counting.

With regard to the Juno spacecraft, it will take five years to reach Jupiter and spend one year doing science exploration.

The primary tasks of the science instruments are:

  • Determine how much water is in Jupiter’s atmosphere, which helps determine which planet formation theory is correct (or if new theories are needed)
  • Look deep into Jupiter’s atmosphere to measure composition, temperature, cloud motions and other properties
  • Map Jupiter’s magnetic and gravity fields, revealing the planet’s deep structure
  • Explore and study Jupiter’s magnetosphere near the planet’s poles, especially the auroras – Jupiter’s northern and southern lights – providing new insights about how the planet’s enormous magnetic force field affects its atmosphere.

Countdown is at T-Minus 25 minutes. All systems are good. Weather is excellent.

T-Minus 20 minutes and counting. Launch in 30 minutes.

T-minus 15 minutes. The weather update from the 45th Space Wing is expected in several minutes.

Systems continue to get checked off. No issues are being worked at the current time.

Booster purge pressure dropped momentarily but is above its lower limit.

T-Minus 10 minutes.

T-Minus 20
Atlas V / Juno at T-Minus 20 minutes
Image Credit: NASA TV

Weather is good. Some high cirrus clouds off shore, but no change from earlier. No shower activity expected.

T-Minus 5 minutes. Centaur O2 level and H2 level are at flight level.

The built in hold at T-Minus 4 minutes and holding for 10 minutes. All participants are switching to communications on launch channel one.

Comm check.

Issue. “Stand by a moment”.

Higher rate of charge cycles on the Centaur helium system. Holding off taking spacecraft power to internal. Discussion of the anomaly on channel six.

The launch will not occur at 8:34 AM as scheduled. An additional five (5) minutes is being added to the hold.

The launch window opens at 1534 UTC and ends at 1643 UTC (8:34 to 9:43 Phoenix time).

A comparison is being made between the current helium cycling on the Centaur, with the cycling observed during the practice full fueling countdown.

It looks like a total of ten (10) minutes have been added to the hold. We still have almost an hour left in the launch window.

An additional set of tests has been ordered, and an additional ten (10) minutes have been added to the hold. Earliest launch time is estimated to be 8:54 AM Phoenix (1554 UTC).

Atlas V / Juno on Hold
Image Credit: NASA TV

On the previous issue of the booster purge pressure drop, the measurement was in the backup system and the primary remained within normal bounds.

Also, the anomaly team has determined the helium charge cycles are within bounds. The leak is with the ground equipment, not with the Centaur helium system.

Range Safety is working to remove a boat that has wandered into the launch area.

A new Launch time of 16:13 Zulu has been set.

The only hangup is waiting for Range Safety to clear the area.

NASA engineering is continuing to discuss the situation, but is not prepared to release the hold at 9:09 AM Phoenix time for the now scheduled 9:13 (1613 UTC) launch.

And now we have a request to extend the hold by five minutes. The new launch time would be 9:18 (1618 UTC).

Engineering has now released the booster for flight. T-minus 4 minutes and holding. The Range Safety folks have cleared the boat from the launch area. A new launch time of 1625 UTC (9:25 AM Phoenix time) has been set. That leaves 18 minutes in the launch window, which expires at 1643 UTC.

Final polling of system teams is ongoing, with ten minutes until launch.

And now, Centaur on internal power. Spacecraft on internal power.

Final polling….Go…Go…Go.

Permission to launch.

T-minus 3 minutes 59 seconds and counting.

T-minus 60 seconds.


Booster separation.

Five minutes into flight. All systems look good.

MECO, stage separation. Centaur has started a six minute 12 second burn.

Centaur first burn complete. There is a 30 minute coast before the second burn.

Atlas Ignition
Image Credit: NASA TV

Atlas Ascent
Image Credit: NASA TV

Atlas Downrange
Image Credit: NASA TV

Atlas Booster Separation
Image Credit: NASA TV

Vesta Full Frame

Vesta Image from 5,200 kilometers
Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA

The Dawn spacecraft has completed imaging of Vesta from an altitude of 5,200 kilometers and has begun spiraling down to an altitude of 2,700 kilometers for the first series of scientific observations.

Chris Russell, Dawn’s principal investigator at UCLA, notes:

We have been calling Vesta the smallest terrestrial planet. The latest imagery provides much justification for our expectations. They show that a variety of processes were once at work on the surface of Vesta and provide extensive evidence for Vesta’s planetary aspirations.

Below are additional images of Vesta from the 24 July collection.

The “Snowman” on Vesta
Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA

The Southern Hemisphere of Vesta with a multitude of craters
Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA

Dawn and Vesta News Conference – Monday 1 August 2011

ED: Images from the press conference are here. Full Rotation of Vesta is here.

NASA will hold a news conference on Monday 1 August 2011 at 9:00 AM Phoenix time (Noon EDT) and release the first full frame images of Vesta from the framing camera.

Both NASA Television and the JPL’s website will broadcast the event. It also will be carried live on Ustream.

The news conference panelists are:

  • Colleen Hartman, assistant associate administrator, Science Mission Directorate, NASA Headquarters, Washington
  • Charles Elachi, director, JPL
  • Marc Rayman, chief engineer and mission manager, JPL
  • Christopher Russell, Dawn principal investigator, University of California, Los Angeles
  • Holger Sierks, framing camera team member, Max Planck Society, Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany
  • Enrico Flamini, chief scientist, Italian Space Agency (ASI), Rome, Italy

Dawn will begin intensive data collection from its four instruments beginning in early August:

  • Framing Camera – Scientific imaging system of the Dawn Mission
  • Visual and Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (VIR) – produces spectral images from 0.35 to 0.9 micron, 0.8 to 2.5 micron and 2.4 to 5.0 micron.
  • Gamma Ray and Neutron Spectrometer (GRaND) – Measures elemental abundances on the surface of Vesta and Ceres.
  • Gravity Science – Utilizes the radio link used for communications and carefully observe the Doppler shift in the link’s carrier frequency.

After spending one year orbiting Vesta, Dawn will travel to a second destination, the dwarf planet Ceres, and arrive there in February 2015.

Is An Earth Trojan Asteroid the Logical Target for the “Flexible Path”?

Trojan Asteroid 2010 TK7
Asteroid 2010 TK7 is circled in green.
Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA

Scientists using the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) have discovered the first Trojan Asteroid in Earth orbit. Trojans orbit at a location in front of or behind a planet known as a Lagrange Point.

A video of the asteroid and its orbit at the Lagrange point can be found here.

Martin Connors of Athabasca University in Canada is the lead author of a new paper on the discovery in the July 28 issue of the journal Nature.

Connors notes that:

These asteroids dwell mostly in the daylight, making them very hard to see. But we finally found one, because the object has an unusual orbit that takes it farther away from the sun than what is typical for Trojans. WISE was a game-changer, giving us a point of view difficult to have at Earth’s surface.

TK7 is roughly 300 meters in diameter and traces a complex motion around SEL-4 (Sun Earth Lagrange point 4). The asteroid’s orbit is stable for at least the next 100 years and is currently about 80 million kilometers from the Earth. In that time, it is expected to come no closer that 24 million kilometers.

The obvious question is whether this is the logical destination for NASA’s Flexible Path manned asteroid mission? The Lagrange 4 point (SEL-4) is a logical way station on the Solar System exploration highway. Other NEO asteroids that have been identified as possible targets are few and much more difficult to reach and return than an asteroid at SEL-4. This may well be the target of opportunity that opens manned exploration of the Solar System in an “easy” mode. Unfortunately, Asteroid 2010 TK7 travels too far above and below the plane of Earth’s orbit, which would require large amounts of fuel to reach it.

NEOWISE is the program for searching the WISE database for Near Earth Objects (NEO), as well as other asteroids in the Solar System.The NEOWISE project observed more than 155,000 asteroids in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter, and more than 500 NEOs, discovering 132 that were previously unknown.