Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Space Highlights - September 9, 2015

September 9, 2015

SpaceX is preparing for the first launch of its Falcon Heavy booster next year.  The first demonstrator launch in spring 2016 is expected to be followed by a launch of a US Air Force satellite a few months later.  The Falcon Heavy is expected to be the largest U.S. launch booster since the Saturn V.

Following its final close-encounter with Saturn's moon, Dione, NASA's Cassini space probe has sent back a stunning edge-on view of Saturn's rings with Dione as seen from a distance, as the probe enters its final months of operation.

Engineers at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, OH are in the early phases of design for a proposed space probe that would explore Titan's seas.  The largest moon of Saturn, Titan is covered in a thick atmosphere, with multiple hydrocarbon seas that were mapped by NASA's Cassini probe using radar imaging.  The proposed probe would include a submarine as well as an orbiter.

NASA developers have come up with a proposal for a new kind of space probe, referred to as the "Hedgehog".  The new concept is aimed at smaller, low-gravity objects, such as comets or asteroids, and would consist of a rover that would hop along the surface.  Two prototypes for the proposed cube-shaped probe have been constructed to test-out the idea.

Researchers pouring through data from the Cassini space probe, have found evidence that one of Saturn's rings has a slightly different structure from its neighbors - as evidenced by different cooling rates as the ring system transitioned through a solar equinox.  The observations suggest that Saturn's A-ring has a higher concentration of ice than its neighbors, indicating either a more recent origin for the A-ring, or that some process has prevented the ice particles from distributing more evenly across the rings.

Combining data from several Mars missions, researchers have concluded that Mars' early atmosphere was likely lost into space - rather than captured in carbonate rocks as had been sometimes suggested.  Surveys by various Mars orbiters, as well as Mars rovers, have found relatively low carbonate concentrations in Martian soil and rocks, indicating that Mars' early atmosphere was not captured by chemical reactions on the surface, but rather escaped into space due to solar wind and the lack of a strong magnetic field on Mars.

China is planning for a first-ever attempt at landing a space probe on the far side of the moon.  Planned for sometime prior to 2020, the Chang'e 4 mission would explore geologic conditions on the moon's far side - the face that's always turned away from the Earth.  China has already sent two lunar orbiters to Earth's nearest neighbor, as well as a small rover.  China's next lunar mission is planned for 2017, and will include a sample-return lander.

Russia has announced plans for a lunar lander, labeled as Luna 25, which would attempt to collect data from the moon's southern polar region.  Targeted for 2024, the probe would attempt to confirm the presence of ice which is suspected to exist in the shadowed interior of craters - where sunlight never reaches.

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has begun the process of downloading images from its encounter last month with Pluto.  NASA had initially targeted a sequence of data from the probe's solar wind and and magnetic sensors, before renewing the download of images.  Signals from the probe require some 4.5 hours to reach Earth, downloading at a rate of 1 to 4 kilobits per second.

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