NASA-funded Twin Rockets, TRICE-2, to Tag Team the Cusp

The two rockets for the Twin Rockets to Investigate Cusp Electrodynamics, or TRICE-2, are in the launch position during a dress rehearsal at the Andøya Space Center in Norway,

In early December, observers in northern Norway will be treated to an unusual show: a sounding rocket double feature. Arcing up over the Norwegian sea, the first rocket will blast off to an altitude of more than 600 miles high, headed due north. Approximately two minutes later, at a lower altitude, another rocket will follow its path.

These twin rockets are chasing down a mystery about magnetic reconnection, the explosive process that allows charged particles from space to stream into Earth’s atmosphere. Carefully observing anomalies in this stream of particles, scientists have wondered about the processes that let them in: Does magnetic reconnection turn on and off, like a faucet, or do particles course in from separate locations, like the distinct streams of a sprinkler?

Armed with two rockets and a clever experimental design, the scientists behind the TRICE-2 mission, short for Twin Rockets to Investigate Cusp Electrodynamics-2, hope to uncover an answer. The results promise to shed light on the fundamental process of magnetic reconnection and, in the long run, help us better predict how and when Earth’s magnetic shield can suddenly become porous and let outside particles in.

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“Magnetic Mars” Engages Public Audiences in Science

The MAVEN communications and outreach team has developed a variety of resources to help communicate the discoveries of the mission to a broad public audience. An article describing these resources published today in the American Geophysical Union (AGU) journal EOS (Earth and Space Science News).

Visitors to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry can check out the Invisible Mars Science on a Sphere exhibit, part of an effort by NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission team to bring Mars research to the general public. Credit: OMSI

For a cold little planet, Mars remains a hot topic: The general public wants to know more about this alien world and hear from the scientists who study it. Recent findings that highlight tantalizing clues to Mars’s wetter past have piqued this interest still further.

For example, because Mars lacks a global magnetic field, the planet has lost much of its ancient, thicker atmosphere, and much of its carbon dioxide has been lost to space. How habitable was the Red Planet, and what does its history tell us about habitability of other alien worlds?

Read the complete EOS article by Christine Shupla, , Tom Mason, and Bruce Jakosky

The Parker Solar Probe is the single greatest innovation of 2018

Illustration of Parker Solar Probe approaching the Sun. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben

There is no shortage of innovation in NASA’s mission roster. Whether you are landing on Mars or entering orbit around an alien planet, missions to space require mind-blowing technological advances. This year the most ingenious spacecraft accolade (and our award for Innovation of the Year) goes to NASA’s Parker Solar Probe. This spacecraft is going to the most deadly place in the solar system—our sun. And it’s not just getting kind of close: as NASA likes to say, it’s going to “kiss” our hellishly hot host star.

No space agency has ever sent a spacecraft so close to the sun before. Previous attempts have inched as near as 25 million miles from the surface, but Parker Solar Probe will orbit the sun at an average distance of only 4 million miles. In order to do this and not melt into a gooey pile of metal, it is equipped with a revolutionary heat shield. The surface of the sun averages around 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit, but Parker Solar Probe won’t get that close. The team expects the spacecraft to reach temperatures of around 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit at most during its 6.5-year mission, and it’s built to beat that heat without a problem.

The heat shield is made up of a carbon-carbon material, similar to what is found in some golf clubs, but this carbon has been heated up. The shield also features a special carbon foam that is made up of 97% air. With a nice coating of white paint on the front to deflect the sun’s rays, this spacecraft is all set to survive an otherwise deadly environment. And all of that protection is only 8 feet in diameter, 4.5 inches thick, and 160 pounds.

Read the complete Article, courtesy of Shannon Stirone and Popular Science

NASA Retires Prolific Solar Observatory, After 16 Years

Every morning for the past 16 years, solar physicist Säm Krucker sat down at his desk to check the latest data from NASA’s RHESSI. Had the solar observatory seen a flare overnight? If there was a new flare, Krucker, RHESSI principal investigator at University of California, Berkeley, since 2013, would pore over the data, each recorded X-ray telling him something about the giant explosion on the Sun.

Now, many years after launching on Feb. 5, 2002, the RHESSI — short for Reuven Ramaty High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager — mission has ended; Krucker, and many other scientists, will no longer check the spacecraft’s data returns each day. In anticipation of losing touch with the spacecraft’s aging receiver, mission operators sent the spacecraft commands to decommission on Aug. 16, 2018.

“It does impact everyday life that way,” Krucker said. Though it’s appropriate timing for RHESSI to stop operations now, he said, while the Sun nears solar minimum, the lull in its activity over an approximately 11-year cycle. “The next two to three years would have been quite boring.”

RHESSI’s job was to watch the Sun for solar flares, some of the most dramatic events on the Sun that can sometimes fling solar energy toward Earth.

Read about the History of this prolific Solar Observatory

Parker Solar Probe Reports First Telemetry, Acquisition of Science Data Since Perihelion

Illustration of Parker Solar Probe approaching the Sun. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben

On Nov. 16, Parker Solar Probe reported that all systems are operating well in the first detailed performance and health update sent to Earth by the spacecraft since its first solar encounter.

At about 6:00 p.m. EST on Friday, Nov. 16, mission controllers at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland, received the report from the spacecraft, which also included information about the data collected by the four instrument suites during its first solar encounter. Parker Solar Probe’s first solar encounter phase took place Oct. 31 – Nov. 11, culminating in its first close approach to the Sun — called perihelion — on Nov. 6 at just 15 million miles from the Sun’s surface, the closest any spacecraft has ever come to our star.

All Parker Solar Probe systems are operating well and as designed. The solid state recorder on the spacecraft indicated that, as planned, the four instrument suites had recorded a significant amount of data, which is scheduled to be downloaded to Earth via the Deep Space Network over several weeks starting Dec. 7. In addition to helping scientists begin to explore fundamental questions about the physics of our star, the data from this initial perihelion — collected closer to the Sun than any before — will help instrument teams calibrate Parker Solar Probe’s instruments and plan future observations.

“The team is extremely proud to confirm that we have a healthy spacecraft following perihelion,” said APL’s Nick Pinkine, mission operations manager for Parker Solar Probe. “This is a big milestone, and we’re looking forward to some amazing science data coming down in a few weeks.”

During the 11-day solar encounter, the spacecraft executed only one autonomous momentum dump – a procedure in which small thrusters are used to adjust the speed of Parker’s reaction wheels. The rate of spin of the wheels is adjusted to maintain the desired orientation of the spacecraft relative to the Sun. Momentum dumps are expected during solar encounters, as the wheels spin up to counter increasing torque from the gravitational effects of the solar environment. Executing only one dump indicates that the spacecraft is well balanced, minimizing the need for these dumps during future solar encounters, which will save propellant.

Parker Solar Probe’s second perihelion will occur on April 4, 2019. During the seven-year mission, the spacecraft will perform a total of 24 perihelia, with the last three bringing the spacecraft to less than 4 million miles from the Sun’s surface.

By Geoff Brown
Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab

GOLD and ICON Spacecraft work together to connect the Big Picture

NASA’s GOLD mission — short for Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk — launched aboard a commercial communications satellite on Jan. 25, 2018. From its vantage point in geostationary orbit over Brazil, GOLD gets a full-disk view of the same region of space that ICON studies, helping scientists connect the big picture with the details.

See the complete countdown to ICON’s launch, planned for no earlier than Nov. 7

UPDATE 11-6-18: Parker Solar Probe Breaks Record, Becomes Closest Spacecraft to Sun

Parker Solar Probe now holds the record for closest approach to the Sun by a human-made object. The spacecraft passed the current record of 26.55 million miles from the Sun’s surface on Oct. 29, 2018, at about 1:04 p.m. EDT, as calculated by the Parker Solar Probe team.

The previous record for closest solar approach was set by the German-American Helios 2 spacecraft in April 1976. As the Parker Solar Probe mission progresses, the spacecraft will repeatedly break its own records, with a final close approach of 3.83 million miles from the Sun’s surface expected in 2024.

“It’s been just 78 days since Parker Solar Probe launched, and we’ve now come closer to our star than any other spacecraft in history,” said Project Manager Andy Driesman, from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. “It’s a proud moment for the team, though we remain focused on our first solar encounter, which begins on Oct. 31.”

Parker Solar Probe is also expected to break the record for fastest spacecraft traveling relative to the Sun on Oct. 29 at about 10:54 p.m. EDT. The current record for heliocentric speed is 153,454 miles per hour, set by Helios 2 in April 1976.

The Parker Solar Probe team periodically measures the spacecraft’s precise speed and position using NASA’s Deep Space Network, or DSN. The DSN sends a signal to the spacecraft, which then retransmits it back to the DSN, allowing the team to determine the spacecraft’s speed and position based on the timing and characteristics of the signal. Parker Solar Probe’s speed and position were calculated using DSN measurements made through Oct. 24, and the team used that information along with known orbital forces to calculate the spacecraft’s speed and position from that point on.

Parker Solar Probe will begin its first solar encounter on Oct. 31, continuing to fly closer and closer to the Sun’s surface until it reaches its first perihelion — the point closest to the Sun — at about 10:28 p.m. EST on Nov. 5. The spacecraft will face brutal heat and radiation conditions while providing humanity with unprecedentedly close-up observations of a star and helping us understand phenomena that have puzzled scientists for decades. These observations will add key knowledge to NASA’s efforts to understand the Sun, where changing conditions can propagate out into the solar system, affecting Earth and other worlds.

Banner image: Parker Solar Probe, shown in this animation, became the closest-ever spacecraft to the Sun on Oct. 29, 2018, when it passed within 26.55 million miles of the Sun’s surface. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL

UPDATED 11-6-18: 

Parker Solar Probe sets records during first encounter with the sun

Less than three months after its fiery departure from Cape Canaveral, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe flew within 15 million miles (24 million kilometers) of the sun Monday for the $1.5 billion mission’s first close-up solar encounter.

Flying in an autonomous mode out of contact with ground controllers, the solar probe was on a trajectory that reached its closest point to the sun at 10:28 p.m. EST Monday (0328 GMT Tuesday), according to NASA.

Parker Solar Probe is circling the sun in an elliptical loop that takes the spacecraft from perihelion — the closest point to the sun which it passed Monday — to a distant point between the orbits of Venus and Earth. The spacecraft’s perihelion Monday reached a position less than half the distance from the sun as Mercury.

“You’re going into an environment that’s completely unforgiving,” said Andy Driesman, Parker Solar Probe’s project manager at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, which built and operates the spacecraft. “The temperatures that we are seeing on the spacecraft have not been seen by any other spacecraft ever before. The first perihelion we’re going into, we have very minimal contact. All we can get is a tone.”

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