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Robotic space science missions to comets and asteroids are in the news right now because of Europe's Rosetta/Philae mission to Comet 67P and Japan's imminent launch of Hayabusa2 to an asteroid. Many may wonder what the difference is between comets and asteroids and what other spacecraft have investigated them.
Nancy Atkinson at Universe Today explains that the biggest difference is their composition: "While asteroids consist of metals and rocky material, comets are made up of ice, dust, rocky materials and organic compounds. When comets get closer to the Sun, they lose material with each orbit because some of their ice melts and vaporizes. Asteroids typically remain solid, even when near the Sun." Another difference is the population, she adds, with millions of asteroids, but only about 4,000 comets, having been discovered so far. There may be many more of each, but that is the count to date.
Several robotic space missions have been sent to study both asteroids and comets already. Rosetta and its Philae lander are particularly newsworthy because they are the first to orbit and land on a comet and will accompany the comet as it travels in toward the Sun, observing how it reacts and its tail forms. Hayabusa2 is of particular interest because it is Japan's second mission to return a sample of an asteroid after its first mission, Hayabusa, overcame long odds to successfully return a small amount of material from a different type of asteroid in 2010.
There have been a number of other robotic missions whose primary purpose was studying asteroids and comets, though, and more are planned.
Editor's note: the list was complied by searching a number of Internet sites. Any errors or omissions are entirely our responsibility.
Update: The launch of Hayabusa2 has slipped from November 30 to December 2 EST (December 1 to December 3 Japan Standard Time). The list was updated accordingly.
UPDATE: The launch has been postponed a second time because of weather. The new launch date is December 3, 1:22:04 pm JST (December 2, 11:22:04 pm EST). This article is updated accordingly.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is getting ready to launch its second asteroid sample return mission, Hayabusa2, on December 2, 2014 Eastern Standard Time (EST), following a second weather delay. Launch time is 11:22 pm EST, which is 1:22 pm December 3 Japan Standard Time (JST). JAXA plans to provide live coverage of the launch on its website.
The original launch date was November 30 JST (November 29 EST). That slipped to December 1 JST (November 30 EST) due to weather, and now has been rescheduled again due to weather. JAXA currently plans to launch it on December 3 JST (December 2 EST).
Hayabusa2 is the successor to Hayabusa (also called MUSES-C), which successfully returned a small amount of material from the asteroid Itokawa in 2010. Hayabusa overcame a number of technical challenges, including the loss of all four of its ion engines. Japanese engineers were able to interconnect working components of different engines to create one that worked. The landing of its sample return canister in Australia on June 14, 2010 Eastern Daylight Time generated considerable excitement around the world. At that time it was unclear as to whether the sample mechanism had actually captured any material from Itokawa, but after they opened the canister, scientists determined it contained about 1,500 grains, which have been the subject of scientific analysis since that time.
Japan quickly decided to mount a second mission, Hayabusa2, with a number of improvements, including to the ion engines and the sample collection mechanism. If launch takes place as scheduled, it will reach its target, asteroid 1999JU3, in mid-2018, remain there for 18 months orbiting the asteroid at a distance of about 20 kilometers (12.5 miles), and return to Earth at the end of 2020.
Artist's concept of Hayabusa2 spacecraft above an asteroid. Image credit: JAXA website.
Among the science instruments on the 600 kilogram (1,322 pound) spacecraft is a small impactor made of pure copper (to distinguish it from other materials on the asteroid). Called Liner, it will be dropped to the surface at a velocity of 2 kilometers (1.25 miles) per second to create an artificial crater by colliding with the asteroid. That will expose fresh material below the asteroid's surface to be collected by the sample return mechanism. Hayabusa2 will also study the asteroid using a near infrared spectrometer (NIRS3) and a thermal infrared imager (TIR), deploy three small rovers (MINERVA) that can move several times by hopping, and a small lander (MASCOT) that can move once by hopping. MASCOT was built by the German space agency, DLR, and the French space agency, CNES, who also teamed on the Philae lander that just landed on Comet 67P on November 12. MASCOT has four observation devices (MicrOmega, MAG, CAM and MARA).
Asteroids are categorized into several different types. Two of the most prevalent are C (carbonaceous) and S (stony). Asteroid 1999JU3 is a C-type, while Hayabusa's target, Itokawa, was an S-type. Thus, Hayabusa2 is not only bringing back additional asteroid samples, but from a different type of asteroid, broadening scientific knowledge about these objects left over from the formation of the solar system.
Launch will be on a Mithsibishi Heavy Industries (MHI) H-IIA rocket from Japan's Tanagashima Space Center. JAXA indicated it would provide live coverage of the launch and of spacecraft separation, but the times for that coverage are not posted on JAXA's website yet.
(For those who are curious, we have published an article providing a brief explanation of the difference between a comet and an asteroid and a list of other robotic comet and asteroid missions flown in the past or planned for the future.)
Scientists are still trying to determine what happened to the Philae lander after it initially touched down on Comet 67P on November 12. New findings suggest that it may have hit the rim of a crater with one of its landing legs and tumbled before landing again, making one more bounce, and reaching its final resting spot.
Philae (pronounced fee-LAY) traveled for 10 years attached to the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft. The pair arrived at Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in August. Philae separated from Rosetta on November 12 and spent 7 hours floating down to the comet's surface. The plan was that harpoons would fire once its landing legs touched the surface to hold the lander in place since comets have almost no gravity. They did not fire, however, and the lander bounced, flying off into the air for almost two hours before a second bounce and final landing.
Data from the Rosetta Landing Magnetometer and Plasma Monitor (ROMAP), one of 10 instruments on Philae, are being analyzed and used to reconstruct what happened to the lander after the first touchdown, which occurred at 15:34:04 GMT. After about 40 minutes, at 16:20 GMT, ROMAP data suggest that one leg of the lander hit something, possibly the rim of a crater. "It was not a touchdown like the first one" according to Hans-Ulrich Auster from the Technische Universität Braunschweig in Germany, ROMAP's co-principal investigator, who was quoted in an ESA press release today.
Philae had been spinning at about one rotation every 13 seconds before that event. "After that the lander was tumbling," Auster continued. "We did not see a simple rotation around the lander's z-axis anymore, it was a much more complex motion...." At 17:25:26 GMT, it touched down on the surface with all three legs for a second time, and at 17:31:17 GMT landed for a third and final time.
ESA and the Rosetta/Philae team still do not know where Philae finally came to rest. Rosetta will continue to orbit Comet 67P as it travels in toward the Sun and cameras aboard Rosetta are looking for Philae, though it is very small (about one meter -- three feet -- on each side) and is next to or under a cliff or other surface feature that prevents sunlight from reaching its solar panels to recharge the batteries. ESA still hopes that as the comet gets closer to the Sun, the lighting conditions may improve for Philae and it could resume its scientific tasks.
Three new crew members arrived at the International Space Station (ISS) this evening Eastern Standard Time (EST), returning the ISS to its full crew complement of six people. With the arrival of Soyuz TMA-15M, there are four men and two women aboard, representing Russia, the United States and Italy, a member of the European Space Agency (ESA).
NASA astronaut Terry Virts, ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti and Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov were launched aboard a Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 4:01 pm EST today and docked with the ISS just under 6 hours later at 9:49 pm EST, using the expedited trajectory that has become common in recent years (previously it took two days to reach the ISS).
Hatch opening is expected in about 1.5 hours. The three will join NASA astronaut Barry "Butch" Wilmore and Russian cosmonauts Elena Serova and Alexander Samokutyaev who arrived at the ISS in September.
The ISS is an international partnership among the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and 11 European countries represented by ESA. Since the United States terminated the space shuttle program in 2011, Russian Soyuz spacecraft are the only means of crew transportation to and from the ISS. The United States is developing new crew transportation systems under "commercial crew" public-private partnerships between NASA and two private companies, Boeing and SpaceX, to restore an American ability to launch people into space by the end of 2017.
Space weather happens every day not just when auroras light up the sky, but intense solar flares can disrupt our technological societies making forecasts of space weather just as critical as terrestrial weather. That was the message at a seminar on Thursday (November 20) on Capitol Hill that explained why space weather is important and why satellites are needed to enable forecasters to warn of impending events. A new satellite, DSCOVR, is about to join the effort.
Representatives of NASA, NOAA, the Air Force, the State Department and a regional electricity transmission organization laid out the science behind space weather, forecasting efforts by NOAA and the Air Force, practical effects on the electrical power grid, and international efforts to better understand and mitigate it. The panel was sponsored by the Secure World Foundation (SWF) and American Astronautical Society (AAS).
Laura Delgado López, SWF project manager and AAS Board member, summed up space weather as “complex, international, and routine.” It is indeed complex and several panelists pointed out that the topic simply is not conducive to “sound bite” explanations.
Lika Guhathakurta, Living with a Star and STEREO program scientist in NASA's heliophysics division, stressed that space weather happens not just when the Sun is most active at solar maximum “but all the time.” It is severe space weather events that attract media attention, however, and explaining the nuances between events that pose differing levels of potential damage can be a challenge.
Thomas Berger, Director of NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC), pointed out that extreme space weather events are rare, but can have a considerable impact on technology. An array of space- and ground-based sensors is used to collect data that allows SWPC to make operational forecasts and issue watches, warnings or alerts to stakeholders that could be negatively affected. Satellites in earth orbit are particularly vulnerable to space weather impacts, but Berger identified other customers for SWPC’s forecasts as ranging from banking to shipping to oil drilling to utilities to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and many more.
Though they are not the only satellites used for operational space weather forecasting, spacecraft at the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange point are critical for providing early warning of the intensity and polarity of particles emitted by eruptions on the Sun. NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) currently have spacecraft positioned at the Sun-Earth L1 point that are used by SWPC. They were designed for research, not operations, however, and are quite old. In two months, the Air Force will launch the NASA-NOAA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR, once known as Triana) to satisfy the highest priority space weather operational requirements.
The electric utility sector is one of those customers. Frank Koza, Executive Director of Infrastructure Planning Support at PJM Interconnection, explained the challenges of managing the electric power grid during severe solar weather events. The Sun’s charged particles can cause geomagnetically induced currents (GICs) that knock out transformers, for example. While his company has generators that can go from zero to full load in 10 minutes to add capacity and blunt the impact, adequate warning is needed. SWPC issues warnings 1-3 days in advance based on solar activity, but critical data from the L1 satellites on intensity and polarity provide only about 20-40 minutes of warning, he said. PJM is a wholesale electricity provider, managing the high-voltage electricity grid in all or parts of 13 states and the District of Columbia and selling that electricity to local power companies.
Space weather forecasting begins with observations, continues with modeling, and ends with watches, warnings, or alerts, Berger explained. In that regard, it is similar to terrestrial weather forecasting. SPWC is, in fact, part of the National Weather Service (NWS) and has its own system of designations from minor to extreme events for radio blackouts, solar radiation storms, or geomagnetic storms.
Asked what Congress can do to help in understanding, forecasting and coping with space weather, Chris Cannizzaro from the State Department’s Office of Space and Advanced Technology and Col. Robert Swanson from the Air Force’s Directorate of Weather both mentioned the need for budget certainty. Swanson said it is critical to know how much money his office will have for training and other activities in order to spend it wisely. Cannizzaro said budget uncertainty complicates efforts to enter into partnerships with other countries. The United States is active in international forums like the U.N. Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPOUS), for example, to coordinate efforts to predict and mitigate space weather.
Swanson pointed out the capability to respond to space weather events is evolving and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has created an interagency space weather operations and mitigation task force to address the issue.
OSTP’s July 2014 National Plan for Civil Earth Observations directs NOAA, in consultation with NASA, to provide observations using its geostationary weather satellites (GOES) and DSCOVR to enable the forecasting of space weather and to study options and explore working with international and interagency partners to provide such data beyond the design lifetime of DSCOVR.
DSCOVR is scheduled for launch in January 2015 and will join NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) and ESA’s Solar Heliophysics Observatory (SOHO) spacecraft at Sun-Earth L1, which is 1.5 million kilometers (932,000 miles) from Earth. SOHO has been operating since 1996 and ACE since 1997.
NASA has 17 other heliophysics spacecraft, Guhathakurta said. Of them, she identified STEREO, SDO, and the Van Allen Probes as contributing to operational space weather forecasting. STEREO is a pair of satellites, one ahead of Earth in its orbit and the other behind it. The Van Allen probes are another pair in nearly identical elliptical Earth orbits. The Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) is an inclined geosynchronous Earth orbit.
Like space weather, heliophysics is difficult to explain. Guhathakurta referred to it as a “concocted” word that represents an environmental science that has an “applied branch” – space weather, and a “pure branch” – studying fundamental physical processes. The phrase “solar and space physics” was commonly used before heliophysics became the term of art and is still used today in some quarters.
DSCOVR is intended to support operational space weather forecasting rather than research, which is NASA’s focus. Scientists hope to launch future research spacecraft in accordance with the priorities set out in the most recent National Research Council Decadal Survey for Solar and Space Physics.
PowerPoint presentations from Thursday’s seminar are posted on SWF’s website.
Here is our list of space policy related events for the next TWO weeks, November 24-December 5, 2014. Congress is in recess this coming week for the Thanksgiving holiday and will return on December 1.
During the Weeks
The United States celebrates Thanksgiving this week (on Thursday), so after the launch and docking of three International Space Station ISS) crew members today (Sunday), there is nothing on the docket until the first week of December in terms of space policy.
However, on November 29 (November 30 in Japan), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) will launch its second asteroid sample return mission, Hayabusa2, which should be of great interest. JAXA will provide live TV coverage of the launch and spacecraft separation.
The first week of December is chock full of events. To pick just two to highlight, ESA's ministerial meeting on December 2 will decide the future of European launch systems and participation in the ISS program through 2020, and NASA's December 4 launch of a test version of the Orion spacecraft (EFT-1) on a 4.5 hour flight is a step forward for the future of the U.S. human spaceflight program. Not everyone may agree on the next destination for the U.S. human spaceflight program -- President Obama's Asteroid Redirect Mission still has not captured much enthusiasm -- but Orion is likely to be the NASA spacecraft to take astronauts wherever it is they will go beyond low Earth orbit.
Under the current schedule, Congress will meet during the first two weeks of December and then bring the 113th Congress to a close, with the 114th Congress convening on January 3, 2015. What's going to happen in those two weeks is, as always, completely unclear, and the two weeks could stretch through the holidays and even into the first two days of January if need be (which happened in 2012-2013 with the "fiscal cliff" showdown for those who remember).
The FY2015 Continuing Resolution (CR) now funding the government expires at midnight on December 11. Under the best of circumstances (in terms of fiscal solvency and the ability of agencies to know how much money they have for FY2015), Congress will pass an omnibus appropriations bill before then combining all 12 regular appropriations bills and fund the government through the end of FY2015 (September 30, 2015). Republican angst over President Obama's immigration executive order (EO) is a complication, however. Some Republicans insist that Congress not appropriate funds that could be used to implement the EO, but the Republican chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Hal Rogers (R-KY), publicly explained that the immigration office that will implement the EO is funded by fees, not appropriations, so it is "impossible" (in his words) to do that. Republicans could devise a surgical approach to defunding some part of the government to demonstrate their displeasure or hold up the entire bill or something in between. The key is that not only must a bill get enough votes to pass Congress -- the Senate remains in Democratic hands until January -- but the President must be willing to sign it, which would seem unlikely if it defunds something he deems of critical importance.
It's anybody's guess as to what will happen. Our best guess, for what it's worth, is that Congress will pass a short term CR to carry the government through to mid- or late-January when the Republicans will be in control of both chambers rather than risk a government shutdown over the holidays because either Congress can't pass a bill or it passes a bill the President won't sign. But we will keep our fingers crossed that an omnibus bill funding the government through September 30, 2015 is still a possibility.
Meanwhile, here is a list of all the events we know about for the next two weeks as of Sunday morning, November 23.
Sunday, November 23 (November 24 local time at the launch site in Kazakhstan)
Saturday, November 29 (November 30 local time at the launch site in Japan)
Monday, December 1
Monday-Wednesday, December 1-3
Tuesday, December 2
Tuesday-Wednesday, December 2-3
Thursday, December 4
Friday, December 5
Registration for NASA's Cube Quest (CQ) Challenge opens on December 2, 2014. Prizes are offered for putting a cubesat into stable lunar orbit or for communicating the most amount of data in certain time frames or for the longest period of time or from the greatest distance in cis-lunar or trans-lunar space.
The CQ Challenge is part of NASA's Centennial Challenges program and has a total prize purse of $5 million.
Prizes will be awarded for:
The opening of registration for this challenge is announced in the November 24, 2014 Federal Register (distributed electronically on November 22), which directs interested individuals to a website that, as of the time of publication of this article (8:30 am November 22), is not working [http://www.nasa.gov/cubequest]. Presumably it will be working by the time registration opens on December 2. Until then, the main website for the Centennial Challenges program may be helpful, though this particular competition does not seem to be posted there yet, either.
The competition ends one year after the "NASA-provided launch opportunity is launched for the challenge."
The House Appropriations Committee announced today that Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) will succeed Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) as chair of the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee in the 114th Congress. Wolf is retiring.
Culberson said in a press statement that it is a "real privilege" to succeed Wolf and it will be "a source of great joy for me to help lift up NASA and the NSF to ensure that America will always lead the world in space exploration and scientific discoveries."
Culberson's district includes Houston, home to NASA's Johnson Space Center. He is a member of the CJS subcommittee now and an ardent advocate for robotic planetary exploration, particularly a mission to Jupiter's moon Europa. Culberson and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA, whose district includes the Jet Propulsion Lab) are the key proponents for adding money for a Europa mission to NASA's budget even though the agency did not have plans to pursue such a mission at the current time.
The most recent National Research Council (NRC) planetary science Decadal Survey identified Europa as the second priority for a flagship-class mission (behind returning a sample of Mars to Earth), but Congress added $75 million in FY2013 (about $69 million after required reductions due to across-the-board cuts that year) and $80 million in FY2014 for NASA to conduct studies and begin preliminary work on a Europa mission. In response, the Obama Administration requested $15 million for Europa in its FY2015 budget request, but it was a one-time request (there is nothing in the projected budget for the next four years). Congress is still working on the FY2015 appropriations bills, but the House added $85 million in the version of the CJS bill it passed in May. The Senate Appropriations Committee did not add money for the mission, but expressed support and directed NASA to design it to be launched on the Space Launch System. At the time of the Decadal Survey, the mission was estimated to cost $4.7 billion. JPL subsequently developed a downscaled concept -- Europa Clipper -- with an approximately $2 billion pricetag.
Note: This article was updated on November 20 at 5:20 pm ET with the quote from Culberson reacting to being named chairman.
Rep. John Culberson (R-TX). Photo Credit: Rep. Culberson's website.
Speculation that Culberson would succeed Wolf has been rampant for the past year. In an interview with the Houston Chronicle's Eric Berger in December 2013, Culberson laid out his views on NASA:
Wolf remains chair of the subcommittee until the end of the 113th Congress. Culberson will take over in the 114th Congress, which convenes on January 3, 2015.
The CJS subcommittee funds NASA, NSF, the Department of Commerce (including NOAA), the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), the Department of Justice, and a number of smaller "related agencies."
In an investors call this afternoon, ATK confirmed that its Board of Directors continues to support its merger with Orbital Sciences Corporation despite the October 28 Antares launch failure. The shareholder vote has been postponed to January 27, 2015, but the ATK Board recommends that the merger go forward.
ATK has concluded that risks associated with Orbital's recovery plan are "manageable," and successful execution is "likely."
"ATK Board of Directors continues to support the merits of the transaction and recommends shareholders vote to approve issuance of ATK shares to Orbital shareholders in connection with the merger," the company said in its presentation.
The two companies announced a "merger of equals" in April, but the explosion of Orbital's Antares rocket on October 28 at Wallops Island, VA is a complicating event. Antares was launching a Cygnus spacecraft filled with cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) as part of Orbital's Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA.
Just one week after the accident, Orbital revealed its recovery plan to fulfill that contract, which requires Orbital to launch 20 tons of cargo to the ISS by the end of 2016. To do that, Orbital will consolidate the remaining tonnage of cargo into four rather than five more launches, made possible by already planned upgrades to Cygnus and Antares. The upgraded Cygnus was already scheduled to be introduced on the next launch, and Orbital will accelerate bringing a new version of Antares on line with a different rocket engine. Until that new rocket is ready, expected in 2016, Orbital will use other companies' rockets to launch Cygnus. Those details are still pending.
What new engine will be used for Antares is a matter of considerable speculation. Neither Orbital nor ATK has said what it is. Antares has been using AJ26 engines, which are Russian NK-33 engines built more than 40 years ago, purchased and refurbished by Aerojet Rocketdyne. During an investors call on November 5, Orbital Chairman, President and CEO David Thompson referred to ongoing technical and supply problems with the AJ26.
Though there was no hard news today during the ATK investors call about what new engine has been selected, the presentation did note Orbital's plan to "accelerate the introduction of a new Antares propulsion system upgrade in 2016" before summarizing its assessment of Orbital's plan as being reasonable. The company did add, however, that it would continue to "work closely with Orbital to monitor progress on the recovery and go-forward plan."
NASA's Science Mission Directorate (SMD) has an opening for a public policy expert to join its policy team. Applications are due by November 24, 2014.
The posting is on the USA Jobs website and is for a GS12/13 "program planning specialist," but the position description is primarily about policy.
DO NOT CONTACT SPACEPOLICYONLINE.COM ABOUT THIS OPENING. NASA asked us to help spread the word -- that's our only involvement. We don't know any more about the job than what's in the posting. Apply through the USA JOBS website.
Here is the three paragraph section that describes the duties.
As a Program Planning Specialist, responsibilities are broad and include: strong emphases on the management of Science Mission Directorate (SMD) relations and communications with external groups; serving as policy expert to develop and maintain relationships with various stakeholders in the government, private industry, and universities to further the agency's research or technology development efforts; and serving as the organizational spokesperson at public meetings, formal and informal, on extremely technical and complex program activities.
Events of Interest