Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Space Highlights - September 7, 2016

September 7, 2016

An explosion aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket during a pre-flight fueling test destroyed an Israeli-built Amos-6 satellite, that had been contracted to supply satellite coverage to sub-Saharan Africa by Facebook Inc.  The cause of the explosion is still under investigation.

The news blackout that followed China's reacent launch of a Gaofen-10 Earth observation satellite has led to speculation that the satellite launch likely failed.  Although news of the launch itself was announced by official Chinese media, and the launch was covered by Chinese television, there was no subsequent announcement confirming that the satellite had successfully reached orbit and deployed.  If the launch attempt did indeed fail, this would be the first Chinese launch failure since 2013.

India's ISRO plans to launch five satellites in September, aboard two rocket boosters.  The first, scheduled for September 8, will carry an INSAT-3DR weather satellite.

Iran has announced plans to launch three satellites into orbit later this month, prompting renewed fears that Iran has been using purported satellite launch attempts to further develop intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) technology, capable of launching a nuclear weapon against the United States.

Scientists pouring over images returned from the Rosetta spacecraft have finally located the resting site of the Philae comet lander, which was successfully deployed by Rosetta but which lost power soon after landing on Comet 67P.  The lander has been identified, wedged into a dark crack on the comet's surface, where its solar panels were unable to maintain a steady power supply.

NASA's Dawn spacecraft has identified cryovolcanos on the surface of Ceres, leading to a more complex picture of the largest member of the "asteroid belt."  Scientists now believe that the surface of Ceres is composed of a mixture of ice and rock, which allowed for the formation of "ice volcanoes" earlier in its history - a marked contrast from Vesta, the other asteroid that the Dawn spacecraft orbited and mapped, which cooled off quickly after its formation and which displays none of the diversity in surface features found on Ceres.

NASA has announced a new launch window in 2018 for its InSight Mars lander - a spacecraft that was previously targeted for launch in March 2016, but which had its earlier launch window scrubbed due to technical glitches.  The InSight lander is expected to drill into the surface of Mars to monitor seismic activity.

Among the leading potential landing sites for NASA's next Mars rover, due for launch in 2020, is a suggestion submitted by a high school student to land the rover at Gusev Crater - where NASA's earlier Spirit rover shut-down after becoming stuck in the sand and loosing its solar-electrical power supply.

The discovery of a 3.7 billion year old fossil in Greenland has pushed back the date for the earliest evidence for life on Earth by another 200 million years, and has also provided researchers with fresh hope that if life did emerge on Mars, the fossilized record might still be intact.  The fossil remains of stromatolites - an early, microscopic life form - date from a time when the surface of the Earth and Mars are believed to have been very similar.

NASA's Juno spacecraft has become the first probe to capture images from a direct flyover of Jupiter's northern pole, providing close-up visual light and infrared imaging of Jupiter's stormy pole for the first time.

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, which made a flyby of Pluto a little over a year ago, captured a distant image of Quaoar, another Kuiper belt object even further from the Sun than Pluto.  Although the image is fuzzy, it provides scientists with a unique, oblique angle image with which to compare similar images taken from Earth, as they attempt to more accurately gauge the body's size, reflectivity and shape.  Quaoar is roughly half the size of Pluto.

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